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Saudi Arabia

Overview

Last Updated: July, 2017

Saudi Arabia does not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and is a party to most relevant nonproliferation treaties and agreements. Saudi Arabia possesses approximately 36 Dongfeng-3 (NATO: CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering unconventional warheads, although Riyadh has publicly declared that it will only pair these missiles with conventional payloads. [1]

Nuclear

Saudi Arabia is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and has a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Because Saudi Arabia lacks any nuclear reactors or meaningful quantities of nuclear materials, it negotiated a Small Quantities Protocol with the IAEA. SQPs limit the declarations and inspections requirements of countries with small nuclear programs. [2] However, the Saudi government has proposed ambitious projects to develop its nuclear industry. A 2010 royal decree established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in Riyadh, a research hub focused on nuclear power development to meet the Kingdom’s energy and water needs. [3] In 2011, the scientific coordinator of KA-CARE announced Saudi Arabia’s intention to construct 16 nuclear reactors to generate around 20% of the Kingdom’s electricity by 2032. [4] To this end, the Saudis have concluded nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries, including France, Argentina, South Korea, and Kazakhstan. [5] Saudi Arabia has yet to break ground on any nuclear reactor project, and the target date for completion has been pushed back to 2040. [6]

There is no credible evidence that Saudi Arabia has ever seriously pursued a nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, high-ranking Saudi officials have occasionally hinted at the desirability of a Saudi nuclear weapon, usually in the context of countering the nuclear ambitions of Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran. For example, Prince Turki al-Faisal stated in 2014 that Saudi Arabia should be capable of equal nuclear "know-how" with Iran and would seek foreign assistance to have its own nuclear weapons in the event of Iranian possession of nuclear weapons. [7] Saudi Arabia’s interest in a nuclear weapon is likely dependent on the status of Iran’s nuclear program: as one analyst puts it, “should Iran at any time decide on a nuclear breakout, then Saudi Arabia would very likely follow suit.” [8] The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal struck to allow intrusive monitoring into Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, was initially viewed skeptically in Saudi Arabia. However, after assurances from the United States, Riyadh expressed qualified support for the deal. [9]

For more details, visit the Saudi Arabia Nuclear page

Biological and Chemical

There is no evidence that Saudi Arabia possesses either a chemical or biological weapons program, or that Saudi Arabia intends to develop such weapons. [10] Saudi Arabia is a party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [11] A 2005 domestic law bans the production, possession, and storage of both chemical and biological weapons within Saudi Arabia, and declares that any individuals found to be in noncompliance will face a fine of one million Riyals and a prison sentence of up to 20 years. [12]

Missile

Saudi Arabia does not have the capability to develop ballistic missiles domestically. Saudi Arabia procured approximately 36 Dongfeng-3 (DF-3; NATO: CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China in 1987. [13] A Committee on Governmental Affairs report to the U.S. Senate states that Saudi Arabia joined the NPT in 1988 in part to assuage serious U.S. concerns that the ballistic missiles would be used to deliver future nuclear warheads. [14] Western officials worried about the missiles because they would be best suited for unconventional warheads; their poor accuracy would not make them useful for delivering conventional warheads to military targets. [15] The Saudi purchase, however, came at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), in which Iraq used inaccurate ballistic missiles to attack Iranian cities. [16] As such, there was a credible conventional rationale behind Saudi Arabia's acquisition of such weapons. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia may have obtained the DF-3 for reasons of prestige and diplomatic signaling. [17] Saudi Arabia currently deploys the DF-3 with conventional warheads, and has pledged that it will not couple the missiles with unconventional payloads. [18] Saudi Arabia has never tested the DF-3, and it is unclear whether the missiles have been maintained or are an active component in Saudi defense strategy. [19]

Citing a U.S. intelligence source in January 2014, Newsweek reported that Saudi Arabia purchased Dongfeng-21 (DF-21; NATO: CSS-5s) ballistic missiles from China in 2007. [20] Saudi Arabia allegedly sought U.S. approval of the deal, which it eventually received after the CIA verified the DF-21 design would be incompatible with nuclear warheads. [21] This purchase is regarded as a replacement or update of Saudi Arabia's DF-3 missile purchase in 1987; although the DF-21 has a shorter range, it is more accurate than the DF-3. [22] Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies predicts the missile buy will have no major strategic impact on the region, but "assesses that Saudi Arabia could modify the ballistic missile frame to carry a nuclear warhead." [23]

For more details, visit the Saudi Arabia Missile page

Sources:
[1] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66.
[2] "Saudi Arabia Signs Small Quantities Protocol," Global Security Newswire, 16 June 2005, www.nti.org.
[3] Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Royal Decree Establishing King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, 18 February 2010, www.kacare.gov.sa.
[4] "Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org.
[5] "Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia Agree to Nuclear Cooperation," World Nuclear News, 26 October 2016, www.world-nuclear-news.org.
[6] "Saudi Arabia's Nuclear, Renewable Energy Plans Pushed Back," Reuters, 19 January 2015, http://uk.reuters.com.
[7] Karl Vick, "Saudis Show Off a Missile as Tensions with Iran Rise," TIME, 1 May 2014; Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' from Pakistan," BBC News, 6 November 2013.
[8] Norman Cigar, Saudi Arabia and Nuclear Weapons: How Do Countries Think About the Bomb? (Abingdon: Routledge 2016) p. 1.
[9] Yeganeh Torbati and Julia Edwards, "Saudi Arabia satisfied with Obama's assurances on Iran deal," Reuters, 4 September 2015.
[10] Zygmunt F. Dembek, "The History and Threat of Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism," Hospital Preparation for Bioterror: A Medical and Biomedical Systems Approach, Joseph H. Mclsaac III, ed., (Burlington: Academic Press, 2006), p. 29.
[11] "OPCW Member States," Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, www.opcw.org.
[12] "Saudi Arabia: Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities and Programs," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, www.nonproliferation.org.
[13] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66.
[14] Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, "The Proliferation Primer: a Majority Report to the Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services," 59. For the ratification date, see: United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," http://disarmament.un.org.
[15] Office of the Secretary of Defense, United States, "Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2009," A Report to Congress Pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2000, p. 24.
[16] Timothy D. Hyot, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution: The Role of the Periphery in Technological and Conceptual Innovation," The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas, Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 193-194.
[17] Timothy D. Hyot, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution: The Role of the Periphery in Technological and Conceptual Innovation," The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas, Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 193-194.
[18] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66; Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom (Oxford: Westview Press, 1997), 179.
[19] Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom (Oxford: Westview Press, 1997), 179.
[20] Jeff Stein, "The CIA Was Saudi Arabia's Personal Shopper," Newsweek, 9 January 2014; Jeffrey Lewis, "Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?" Foreign Policy, 30 January 2014.
[21] Jeff Stein, "The CIA Was Saudi Arabia's Personal Shopper," Newsweek, 29 January 2014.
[22] Jeff Stein, "The CIA Was Saudi Arabia's Personal Shopper," Newsweek, 29 January 2014; Ethan Meick, "China's Reported Ballistic Missile Sale to Saudi Arabia: Background and Potential Implications," U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Report, 16 June 2014.
[23] Ethan Meick, "China's Reported Ballistic Missile Sale to Saudi Arabia: Background and Potential Implications," U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Report, 16 June 2014; Jeffrey Lewis, "Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?" Foreign Policy, 30 January 2014.

Get the Facts on Saudi Arabia
  • State party to the NPT, CWC and BTWC
  • Possesses 40 to 60 CSS-2 medium-range ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 2,650km
  • Has no nuclear research or power reactors

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.