Fact Sheet

Saudi Arabia Nuclear Overview

Saudi Arabia Nuclear Overview

Save to My Resources

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

Background

This page is part of the Saudi Arabia Country Profile.

Saudi Arabia possesses only a rudimentary civil nuclear infrastructure, and currently lacks the physical and technological resources to develop an indigenous nuclear weapons capability. Allegations that Saudi Arabia has sought to acquire nuclear weapons in the past have never been substantiated publicly.

Saudi Arabia acceded to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1988 and since 1999 has expressed its support for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. While the last decade has witnessed growing speculation about how Saudi Arabia might respond to Iran’s controversial nuclear program, most experts agree Riyadh remains unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future, even if a nuclear-armed Iran were to emerge. In recent years Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in an ambitious agenda to expand its civil nuclear power program, but it remains unclear whether its plans will come to fruition.

History

Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear-related research dates back to the 1960s, and it has maintained a modest civilian nuclear program since the late 1970s. In 1977, Riyadh established a basic nuclear center known as the King Abd Al-Aziz Center for Science and Technology (KAACST). 1 A decade later, in 1988, the Kingdom established its Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI) within KAACST, which has conducted research on “industrial applications of radiation and radioactive isotopes, nuclear power and reactors, nuclear materials and radiation protection.” 2 Since the late 1970s, Saudi scientists have conducted a series of studies into the feasibility of developing nuclear power plants for electricity generation and desalination purposes, but Saudi Arabia has yet to acquire a nuclear power reactor. 3

Proliferation Concerns and Alleged Cooperation with Iraq and Pakistan

Speculation regarding Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapons ambitions has periodically surfaced in the media. According to one report, “among the charges levelled at it have been that it possesses undeclared nuclear facilities; that it sought or may seek a nuclear security guarantee from a country other than the United States in return for energy supplies; and that it has attempted or planned for the outright purchase of a nuclear weapon and/or delivery system from another state.” 4

Most of this speculation stems from allegations made by Muhammad Khilewi, a former Saudi diplomat who defected to the United States in the 1990s. Disclosing thousands of documents he claimed to have copied directly from official Saudi sources, Khilewi asserted that since 1975 Riyadh had sought to acquire nuclear weapons. 5 Khilewi maintained that following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War Saudi Arabia set up a clandestine program run out of the Al-Kharj nuclear research center at a remote military facility near the town of Al-Sulayyil southwest of Riyadh. 6 In a 1998 interview, he also claimed Saudi Arabia had spent millions to support the Iraqi and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs. 7 Riyadh has denied the veracity of Khilewi’s statements, and most experts dismiss their credibility. 8

Allegations of Saudi Financial Assistance to Iraq’s Nuclear Weapons Program

According to Khilewi’s documents, Riyadh provided Saddam Hussein with nearly $5 billion to finance Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program between 1975 and 1990. 9 Such funding was allegedly part of Saudi Arabia’s broader financial support to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, which, according to Khilewi, amounted to $25 billion. 10 In exchange for its financial backing, Saudi Arabia would purportedly receive some of the Iraqi nuclear weapons once they were produced. In addition, Saudi scientists reportedly received nuclear weapons-related training in Iraq as part of the deal. 11 Khilewi claimed the cooperation ultimately collapsed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The Alleged Saudi-Pakistani Nuclear Quid Pro Quo

Allegations that Saudi Arabia provided significant financial support for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, possibly with the understanding that Islamabad would provide sensitive nuclear weapons-related technology or even extended deterrence in exchange, stem from claims made by Khilewi as well as numerous others. 12 Information in the public domain suggests Riyadh did provide financial assistance to Islamabad in the 1970s and 1980s, along with discounted oil supplies after the United States imposed sanctions following Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998. 13 While Saudi aid enabled the program to continue, whether Riyadh directly financed the Pakistani bomb effort or had an explicit nuclear-related agreement with Islamabad remains subject to speculation.

Several high-profile interactions have sparked further suspicions of a Saudi-Pakistani nuclear quid pro quo. In May 1999, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan visited the uranium enrichment plant and missile facility at Kahuta outside Islamabad, reportedly conducting a follow-up visit in 2002. 14 The notorious Pakistani scientist and black market purveyor of nuclear-related goods and technology, AQ Khan, traveled to Saudi Arabia in November 1999. 15 In October 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah visited Pakistan, a trip which an Israeli senior intelligence official reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was intended to secure an agreement whereby Saudi Arabia would purchase Pakistani nuclear warheads to be placed atop Saudi missiles in the event Iran acquired nuclear weapons. 16 Others have speculated such an agreement might involve the stationing of Pakistani nuclear weapons on Saudi territory. 17 Both Riyadh and Islamabad have denied these allegations, and most analysts believe it highly unlikely Pakistan would ever follow through with such an agreement, were it to even exist, given a host of disincentives. 18

Iran and the Prospect of Saudi Reactive Proliferation

Notwithstanding the speculation surrounding Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation, Riyadh apparently initiated a review of its strategic policy around 2003 in light of its changing security environment. Based on a leaked strategy paper, a September 2003 report published in The Guardian alleged the strategic reassessment involved the consideration of three options: pursuing an indigenous nuclear deterrent; maintaining or entering into an alliance with an existing nuclear power; or seeking a regional agreement establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. 19 The Saudi government denied that such a document existed at the time. Saudi officials have apparently issued explicit warnings about Riyadh’s intention to acquire nuclear weapons in the event Iran does. According to a senior U.S. official, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned in 2009 that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “we will get nuclear weapons.” 20 However, in 2015, Saudi officials publicly supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal struck to allow intrusive monitoring into Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, stating that the agreement will prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb and will promote security in the region. 21

Recent Developments and Current Status


Saudi Arabia currently possesses a limited civilian nuclear infrastructure consisting of a three-megavolt Tangetron accelerator, a 350 kilovolt light-ion accelerator, and a cyclotron. The accelerators are housed at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals and are used to conduct experiments in nuclear physics, while the cyclotron is used to produce medical isotopes at the King Fasisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh. 22 The knowledge required to operate such facilities is basic, and not applicable to the development of nuclear weapons. 23 In addition to operating these facilities, Saudi scientists conduct lab research and experiments in nuclear science, including through the operation of a cobalt-60 irradiation facility. 24 The Kingdom has no known uranium conversion, enrichment, or fuel-fabrication facilities, nor does it possess any power reactors or reprocessing capabilities. Some AERI laboratories conduct research on physical and chemical separation and radiochemistry, making them potentially suitable for small-scale plutonium reprocessing, “though not in quantities that would present a proliferation risk.” 25

Saudi Arabia acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1988, and signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, eventually bringing it into force in 2009. At the time Riyadh signed its safeguards agreement: however, it qualified it with a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP). This measure exempts countries with little or no nuclear material from regular inspections, but the IAEA has tried to convince countries with SQPs to rescind or update them, as they limit the Agency’s ability to verify no undeclared nuclear activities are taking place, and that a country does not possess more nuclear material than allowed by the protocol. 26 Saudi Arabia will eventually be forced to do away with its SQP if its plans to further develop its civil nuclear program come to fruition.

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has shown a renewed interest in further developing its civil nuclear program. The Kingdom has played a central role in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) efforts to launch a regional initiative in 2006 to examine and eventually develop a joint civil nuclear energy program. 27 Parallel to the GCC initiative, Riyadh has also taken a series of steps to develop commercial relationships with major nuclear suppliers, signing a memorandum of understanding with the United States in 2008, as well as cooperative agreements with France (February 2011), Argentina (June 2011), South Korea (November 2011), and China (January 2012). 28 Riyadh is also reportedly in the process of negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Russia. 29 This flurry of activity occurred in the midst of Saudi Arabia’s announcement in June 2011 of an ambitious plan to build sixteen nuclear power reactors over the next two decades, aiming to bring the first reactor online by 2022. 30 Most experts viewed this timetable as highly unrealistic, and indeed, as of mid-2016 no meaningful progress had been made toward achieving it. 31

Stay Informed

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.

Sign Up

What Is Safeguards Effectiveness?

Paper

What Is Safeguards Effectiveness?

The term “safeguards effectiveness” means the effectiveness of IAEA verification—that is, the ability of the IAEA to detect non-compliance.


Ensuring Safeguards Sustainability

Paper

Ensuring Safeguards Sustainability

The ways sustainability of the IAEA safeguards system can be ensured by the agency, its Member States, and the international community


Reflections on Safeguards Culture

Paper

Reflections on Safeguards Culture

The concepts of “nuclear safety culture” and“nuclear security culture” are well established in IAEA practice, but no similar terminology is used for nuclear safeguards.


Glossary

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT: Signed in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the most widely adhered-to international security agreement. The “three pillars” of the NPT are nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Article VI of the NPT commits states possessing nuclear weapons to negotiate in good faith toward halting the arms race and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The Treaty stipulates that non-nuclear-weapon states will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, and will accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on their nuclear activities, while nuclear weapon states commit not to transfer nuclear weapons to other states. All states have a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and should assist one another in its development. The NPT provides for conferences of member states to review treaty implementation at five-year intervals. Initially of a 25-year duration, the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. For additional information, see the NPT.
Non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS)
Non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS): Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), NNWS are states that had not detonated a nuclear device prior to 1 January 1967, and who agree in joining the NPT to refrain from pursuing nuclear weapons (that is, all state parties to the NPT other than the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China).
WMD (weapons of mass destruction)
WMD: Typically refers to nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, though there is some debate as to whether chemical weapons qualify as weapons of “mass destruction.”
Nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon: A device that releases nuclear energy in an explosive manner as the result of nuclear chain reactions involving fission, or fission and fusion, of atomic nuclei. Such weapons are also sometimes referred to as atomic bombs (a fission-based weapon); or boosted fission weapons (a fission-based weapon deriving a slightly higher yield from a small fusion reaction); or hydrogen bombs/thermonuclear weapons (a weapon deriving a significant portion of its energy from fusion reactions).
Nuclear energy
Nuclear energy: The energy liberated by a nuclear reaction (fission or fusion), or by radioactive decay.
Radiation (Ionizing)
Radiation that has sufficient energy to remove electrons from substances that it passes through, forming ions. May include alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, x-rays, neutrons, high-speed electrons, high-speed protons, and other particles capable of producing ions.
Isotope
Isotope: Any two or more forms of an element having identical or very closely related chemical properties and the same atomic number (the same number of protons in their nuclei), but different atomic weights or mass numbers (a different number of neutrons in their nuclei). Uranium-238 and uranium-235 are isotopes of uranium.
Nuclear power plant
Nuclear power plant: A facility that generates electricity using a nuclear reactor as its heat source to provide steam to a turbine generator.
Nuclear reactor
Nuclear reactor: A vessel in which nuclear fission may be sustained and controlled in a chain nuclear reaction. The varieties are many, but all incorporate certain features, including: fissionable or fissile fuel; a moderating material (unless the reactor is operated on fast neutrons); a reflector to conserve escaping neutrons; provisions of removal of heat; measuring and controlling instruments; and protective devices.
Sanctions
Punitive measures, for example economic in nature, implemented in response to a state's violation of its international obligations.
Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium: Uranium with an increased concentration of the isotope U-235, relative to natural uranium. Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent U-235, whereas nuclear weapons typically require uranium enriched to very high levels (see the definitions for “highly enriched uranium” and “weapons-grade”). Nuclear power plant fuel typically uses uranium enriched to 3 to 5 percent U-235, material that is not sufficiently enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.
Deterrence
The actions of a state or group of states to dissuade a potential adversary from initiating an attack or conflict through the credible threat of retaliation. To be effective, a deterrence strategy should demonstrate to an adversary that the costs of an attack would outweigh any potential gains. See entries for Extended deterrence and nuclear deterrence.
Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ)
NWFZ: A geographical area in which nuclear weapons may not legally be built, possessed, transferred, deployed, or tested.
Radioisotope
Radioisotope: An unstable isotope of an element that decays or disintegrates spontaneously, emitting energy (radiation). Approximately 5,000 natural and artificial radioisotopes have been identified. Some radioisotopes, such as Molybdenum-99, are used for medical applications, such as diagnostics. These isotopes are created by the irradiation of targets in research reactors.
Irradiate
Irradiate: To expose to some form of radiation.
Uranium
Uranium is a metal with the atomic number 92. See entries for enriched uranium, low enriched uranium, and highly enriched uranium.
Reprocessing
Reprocessing: The chemical treatment of spent nuclear fuel to separate the remaining usable plutonium and uranium for re-fabrication into fuel, or alternatively, to extract the plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.
Entry into force
The moment at which all provisions of a treaty are legally binding on its parties. Every treaty specifies preconditions for its entry into force. For example, the NPT specified that it would enter into force after the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (the Depository governments) and 40 other countries ratified the treaty, an event that occurred on March 5, 1970. See entries for Signature, Ratification.
Safeguards
Safeguards: A system of accounting, containment, surveillance, and inspections aimed at verifying that states are in compliance with their treaty obligations concerning the supply, manufacture, and use of civil nuclear materials. The term frequently refers to the safeguards systems maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in all nuclear facilities in non-nuclear weapon state parties to the NPT. IAEA safeguards aim to detect the diversion of a significant quantity of nuclear material in a timely manner. However, the term can also refer to, for example, a bilateral agreement between a supplier state and an importer state on the use of a certain nuclear technology.

See entries for Full-scope safeguards, information-driven safeguards, Information Circular 66, and Information Circular 153.
Nuclear energy
Nuclear energy: The energy liberated by a nuclear reaction (fission or fusion), or by radioactive decay.

Sources

  1. Ibrahim al-Marashi, "Saudi Petro-Nukes? Riyad's Nuclear Intentions," in Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century: A Comparative Perspective, Vol. II, ed. William Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 79.
  2. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 40.
  3. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 41.
  4. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 42.
  5. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 42.
  6. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, p. 24. www.cnas.org.
  7. Mohammed Al Khilewi & Middle East Quarterly, "Mohammed Al Khilewi: 'Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Kill Me,'" Middle East Quarterly, Vol.3 (5), September 1998, pp. 66-77, www.meforum.org.
  8. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 42.
  9. "Mohammed Al Khilewi: 'Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Kill Me,'" Middle East Quarterly, Vol.3 (5), September 1998, pp. 66-77, www.meforum.org.
  10. "Mohammed Al Khilewi: 'Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Kill Me,'" Middle East Quarterly, Vol.3 (5), September 1998, pp. 66-77, www.meforum.org.
  11. Marie Colvin, "How an Insider Lifted the Veil on Saudi Plot for an 'Islamic Bomb,'" Sunday Times, 24 July 1994.
  12. Mark Urban, "Saudi nuclear weapons 'on order' from Pakistan," BBC, 6 November 2013; Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 43; Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, pp. 23-25.
  13. Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012, p. 383; Phillip C. Bleek, "Atomic Kingdom? Not So Fast," WMD Junction, 15 November 2013; Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008); Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013.
  14. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, p. 25.
  15. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p. 43.
  16. "Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 43.
  17. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 43-44.
  18. Phillip C. Bleek, "Atomic Kingdom? Not So Fast," WMD Junction, 15 November 2013; Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008); Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013.
  19. Ewen MacAskill and Ian Traynor, "Saudis consider nuclear bomb," The Guardian, 18 September 2003.
  20. Mark Urban, "Saudi nuclear weapons 'on order' from Pakistan," BBC, 6 November 2013; "King Says Saudi Arabia Would Need Nukes to Counter Iran Arsenal: Ross," Global Security Newswire, 30 May 2012.
  21. Yeganeh Torbati and Julia Edwards, "Saudi Arabia satisfied with Obama's assurances on Iran deal," Reuters, 4 September 2015, www.reuters.com.
  22. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, p. 21; Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p. 41.
  23. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, p. 21.
  24. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p 40.
  25. Mark Fitzpatrick, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), p. 41.
  26. Paul Kerr, "IAEA Board Seeks Strengthened Safeguards," Arms Control Today, 1 July 2005, www.armscontrol.org.
  27. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, p. 22.
  28. Summer Said, "Saudi Arabia, China Sign Nuclear Cooperation Pact," Wall Street Journal, 16 January 2012, www.wsj.com; Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for a New American Security (CNAS), February 2013, p. 22.
  29. Steven Dolley and Jim Ostroff, "Cooperation pact crucial for US-Saudi nuclear business: ENP official," Nucleonics Week, 12 September 2013; Ann MacLachlan, "Worley Parsons to help Saudis select nuclear power plant sites," Nucleonics Week, 17 November 2011; "Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia," World Nuclear Association, December 2014, www.world-nuclear.org.
  30. Lenka Kollar, "Small Modular Reactors Offer Option for Near-Term Nuclear Power Deployment," International Atomic Energy Agency, 16 September 2015, www.iaea.org.
  31. Lenka Kollar, "Small Modular Reactors Offer Option for Near-Term Nuclear Power Deployment," International Atomic Energy Agency, 16 September 2015, www.iaea.org.

Close

My Resources