Fact Sheet

Saudi Arabia Overview

Saudi Arabia Overview

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Saudi Arabia does not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and is a party to most relevant nonproliferation treaties and agreements. Saudi Arabia possesses 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 and negotiated a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP) with the IAEA. [2] However, the Saudi government has pursued numerous projects to develop its nuclear industry. These include the 2010 establishment of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in Riyadh, nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries (including France, Argentina, South Korea, and Kazakhstan), and a long-delayed proposal to construct 16 nuclear reactors by 2040. [3]

In February 2019, a U.S. Congressional report indicated that Trump administration officials had pursued a nuclear reactor construction deal with Saudi Arabia. The deal attracted controversy for allegedly bypassing the 123 Agreement process stipulated by the Atomic Energy Act, which requires Congressional approval for sensitive transfer of nuclear technologies to non-U.S. countries. [4]

No credible evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia has ever pursued a nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, high-ranking Saudi officials have hinted at the desirability of possessing nuclear weapons, usually in the context of countering the nuclear ambitions of Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran. In 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman publicly stated, “If Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” [5] Although Saudi Arabia expressed qualified support during the Obama administration for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allows intrusive monitoring into Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, Saudi officials praised the Trump administration’s pullout from the agreement in 2018. [6]

For more details, visit the Saudi Arabia Nuclear page

Biological and Chemical

No evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia possesses either a chemical or biological weapons program or that Saudi Arabia intends to develop such weapons. [7] Saudi Arabia is a party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [8] 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 noncompliant will face a fine of one million riyals and a prison sentence of up to 20 years. [9]

Missile

Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile arsenal consists entirely of missiles purchased from China, although recent evidence suggests Saudi Arabia may now have the capability to develop ballistic missiles domestically. Open-source analysis from January 2019 indicates that the country possesses solid-fuel ballistic missile production capabilities, possibly supplied by China. [10]

Saudi Arabia procured Dongfeng-3 (DF-3; NATO: CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China in 1987, prompting some concern about Saudi intentions regarding the plausible use of unconventional payloads. [11] Saudi Arabia currently only deploys the DF-3 with conventional warheads and has pledged not to couple the missiles with unconventional payloads. [12] Saudi Arabia has never tested the DF-3, making its importance to Saudi defense strategy unclear. [13] Recent reports suggest that Saudi Arabia purchased the Dongfeng-21 (DF-21; NATO: CSS-5s) ballistic missiles from China in 2007. [14] This purchase is regarded as a replacement or update of Saudi Arabia’s DF-3 missile purchase in 1987; the DF-21 has a shorter range but is more accurate than the DF-3. [15]

Saudi Arabia acquired ballistic missile defense capabilities following the Gulf War, during which Iraq launched short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and cruise missiles against the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia currently fields several American-made systems, including two variants of the Hawk surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and two variants of the Patriot SAM system. [16] In November 2018, the sale of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to Saudi Arabia was finalized in a deal worth roughly $15 billion. [17]

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] SQPs limit the declarations and inspections requirements of countries with small nuclear programs; "Saudi Arabia Signs Small Quantities Protocol," Global Security Newswire, 16 June 2005, www.nti.org.
[3] The original 2011 plan called for 16 new reactors in order to generate around 20% of the Kingdom’s electricity by 2032. Saudi Arabia has yet to break ground on any nuclear reactor project, and the target date for completion has been pushed back to 2040; Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Royal Decree Establishing King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, 18 February 2010, www.kacare.gov.sa. "Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org; "Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia Agree to Nuclear Cooperation," World Nuclear News, 26 October 2016, www.world-nuclear-news.org; "Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear, Renewable Energy Plans Pushed Back," Reuters, 19 January 2015, http://uk.reuters.com.
[4] Mary Beth D. Nikitin, Paul K. Kerr, “Nuclear Cooperation with Other Countries: A Primer,” Congressional Research Service, 15 January 2019, fas.org; Ken Dilanian, “Flynn-backed Plan to Transfer Nuclear Tech to Saudis May Have Broken Laws, Say Whistleblowers,” NBC News, 19 February 2019, nbcnews.com; Chad Day, “Flynn Pushed to Share Nuclear Tech with Saudis, Report Says,” Associated Press, 19 February 2019, www.apnews.com.
[5] Stephan Kalin and Parisa Hafezi, “Saudi Crown Prince Says Will Develop Nuclear Bomb If Iran Does: CBS TV,” Reuters, 15 March 2018, www.reuters.com.
[6] Norman Cigar, Saudi Arabia and Nuclear Weapons: How Do Countries Think About the Bomb? (Abingdon: Routledge 2016) p. 1; “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Statement on the United States Withdrawal from the JCPOA,” Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 8 May 2018, www.saudiembassy.net.
[7] 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.
[8] "OPCW Member States," Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, www.opcw.org.
[9] "Saudi Arabia: Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities and Programs," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, www.nonproliferation.org.
[10] Paul Sonne, “Can Saudi Arabia Produce Ballistic Missiles? Satellite Imagery Raises Suspicions,” The Washington Post, 23 January 2019, www.washingtonpost.com.
[11] While the United States expressed concern that the ballistic missiles could be used to deliver nuclear warheads, the conventional use of these missiles during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) lent credence to Saudi Arabia’s argument that it would only use conventional payloads on the missiles; Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66.
[12] 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.
[13] Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom (Oxford: Westview Press, 1997), 179.
[14] 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.
[15] 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.
[16] Jeremy Binnie, "US Approves Saudi PAC-3 Sale," IHS Jane’s 360, 2 October 2014, www.janes.com.
[17] Mike Stone, “Saudi Arabia Inks Deal for Lockheed’s Missile Defense System,” Reuters, 28 November 2018, www.reuters.com.

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Glossary

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.”
Nonproliferation
Nonproliferation: Measures to prevent the spread of biological, chemical, and/or nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. See entry for Proliferation.
Ballistic missile
A delivery vehicle powered by a liquid or solid fueled rocket that primarily travels in a ballistic (free-fall) trajectory.  The flight of a ballistic missile includes three phases: 1) boost phase, where the rocket generates thrust to launch the missile into flight; 2) midcourse phase, where the missile coasts in an arc under the influence of gravity; and 3) terminal phase, in which the missile descends towards its target.  Ballistic missiles can be characterized by three key parameters - range, payload, and Circular Error Probable (CEP), or targeting precision.  Ballistic missiles are primarily intended for use against ground targets.
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).
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.
Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement
A legally-binding agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), concluded as a condition of membership in the Treaty. Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements allow and oblige the IAEA to ensure that all nuclear material and nuclear activities in a state are peaceful and not diverted to nuclear weapons. See entries for Full-scope Safeguards and Information Circular 153; for additional information, see IAEA Department of Safeguards.
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.
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.
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.
Chemical Weapon (CW)
The CW: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons defines a chemical weapon as any of the following: 1) a toxic chemical or its precursors; 2) a munition specifically designed to deliver a toxic chemical; or 3) any equipment specifically designed for use with toxic chemicals or munitions. Toxic chemical agents are gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical substances that use their toxic properties to cause death or severe harm to humans, animals, and/or plants. Chemical weapons include blister, nerve, choking, and blood agents, as well as non-lethal incapacitating agents and riot-control agents. Historically, chemical weapons have been the most widely used and widely proliferated weapon of mass destruction.
Biological weapon (BW)
Biological weapons use microorganisms and natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals, or plants.  Biological weapons can be derived from: bacteria (anthrax, plague, tularemia); viruses (smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers); rickettsia (Q fever and epidemic typhus); biological toxins (botulinum toxin, staphylococcus enterotoxin B); and fungi (San Joaquin Valley fever, mycotoxins). These agents can be deployed as biological weapons when paired with a delivery system, such as a missile or aerosol device.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
The BTWC: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (BTWC) prohibits the development, production, or stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons. Countries must destroy or divert to peaceful purposes all agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery within nine months after the entry into force of the convention. The BTWC was opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975. In 1994, the BTWC member states created the Ad Hoc Group to negotiate a legally binding BTWC Protocol that would help deter violations of the BTWC. The draft protocol outlines a monitoring regime that would require declarations of dual-use activities and facilities, routine visits to declared facilities, and short-notice challenge investigations. For additional information, see the BTWC.
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) requires each state party to declare and destroy all the chemical weapons (CW) and CW production facilities it possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, as well as any CW it abandoned on the territory of another state. The CWC was opened for signature on 13 January 1993, and entered into force on 29 April 1997. For additional information, see the CWC.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance that was formed in 1949 to help deter the Soviet Union from attacking Europe. The Alliance is based on the North Atlantic Treaty, which was signed in Washington on 4 April 1949. The treaty originally created an alliance of 10 European and two North American independent states, but today NATO has 28 members who have committed to maintaining and developing their defense capabilities, to consulting on issues of mutual security concern, and to the principle of collective self-defense. NATO is also engaged in out-of-area security operations, most notably in Afghanistan, where Alliance forces operate alongside other non-NATO countries as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). For additional information, see NATO.
Deployment
The positioning of military forces – conventional and/or nuclear – in conjunction with military planning.
Cruise missile
An unmanned self-propelled guided vehicle that sustains flight through aerodynamic lift for most of its flight path. There are subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles currently deployed in conventional and nuclear arsenals, while conventional hypersonic cruise missiles are currently in development. These can be launched from the air, submarines, or the ground. Although they carry smaller payloads, travel at slower speeds, and cover lesser ranges than ballistic missiles, cruise missiles can be programmed to travel along customized flight paths and to evade missile defense systems.
Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD)
THAAD: The U.S. Army's air defense program designed to provide extended defense, and to engage an incoming missile at ranges of up to several hundred kilometers. THAAD deploys a hit-to-kill interceptor equipped with an infrared seeker. The interception is intended to occur outside the earth's atmosphere, or high in the atmosphere.

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