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Saudi Arabia's nuclear gambit
By Stephen Blank

The war against Saddam Hussein, along with the current crises involving North Korea and Iran's nuclear activities, underscore the centrality of the issue of nuclear proliferation in today's politics. Many governments, not just the United States, have concentrated on the danger of terrorists or of states who sponsor them getting  hold of nuclear weapons.

However, apparently defying those international concerns, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are now reported to have arranged a deal by which Pakistan will provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear technology in return for cheap oil. The US-based Defense and Foreign Affairs Daily even goes so far as to say that Pakistan will station nuclear weapons on Saudi territory. These weapons will be fitted to a new generation of Chinese-supplied long-range missiles with a reach of 4,000 to 5,000 kilometers.

There are numerous motives for this deal, as reported by different sources. In the Saudi case there is evidently growing disengagement with Washington due to the "war on terrorism" and the war on Iraq. These events have created an atmosphere where Saudi elites evidently feel less inclined to rely on American protection in the face of regional threats, specifically the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon. They also see no pressure from Washington being directed against Israel's nuclear arsenal, even though there is no sign or even consideration of an attack on Saudi Arabia. They also clearly resent the evidence of a Saudi connection to al-Qaeda and accusations against them of less than wholehearted cooperation with Washington and other Western capitals in efforts to break up al-Qaeda and its source of financing.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has refused to stop supporting the financing of Palestinian terrorism, even as its officials and elites' ties through various intermediary organizations to al-Qaeda remain a source of anxiety to Western and Israeli officials. Nor is it only Pakistan that Saudi Arabia might use as a source for nuclear weapons. Speculation by Jane's that Saudi Prince Abdullah's recent visit to Moscow might indicate an interest in arms trading with Russia, and it also raised the possibility of Saudi Arabia buying an entire weapon rather than technology.

Pakistan's fears of an Israeli-Indian alliance are well known and out in the open. As India is reported to have some 200-400 nuclear weapons, Pakistan is seeking equalizers to deter India, and weapons located outside India's targeting reach offer that possibility. At the same time, because its other oil sources are located in areas that might be unreliable, like the Gulf or Central Asia, a deal with Saudi Arabia eases fears of an energy boycott or blockade in time of crisis.

Another consideration is that a possible Saudi nuclear deterrent might also check Iran, with whom Pakistan has issues, especially over Afghanistan. Thus, a possible Riyadh-Islamabad axis would offer those two capitals, both of which continue to sponsor terrorism in Palestine and Kashmir respectively, a way to check India and its allies or partners, Iran and Israel.

Although both governments have firmly denied these allegations of nuclear cooperation, the explosion of reports from different sources in the US and Europe, many allegedly based on sources with access to these governments, appears to have some basis in reality.

Reportedly, President George W Bush and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have confronted Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and other officials about these reports. Certainly, if they possess any element of truth, the news would represent a further escalation of the proliferation threat, but this time it would be clear that one is dealing with states which sponsor terrorism as proliferators.

Obviously, that kind of transformation of the proliferation situation raises the possibility of several more crises in different regions of the world, all of which could occur in relatively simultaneous fashion and which would all involve the linked threats of either terrorists with access to nuclear weapons or states possessing those weapons which extend their protection and deterrence to those terrorists.

Furthermore, there are still more considerations. If one looks at the history of Pakistan's nuclear program there immediately arises the issue of Pakistan's widely-reported assistance to North Korea, which at the same time is apparently proliferating missiles all over the Middle East. Adding Saudi Arabia to this chain of proliferators only extends the process of secondary or tertiary proliferation by which new nuclear powers assist other nuclear "wannabes" to reach that state. Thus, the threat expressed by the US of being at the crossroads of radicalism and technology becomes that much more real.

Finally, there is the role of China. Beijing has been the main foreign supplier to Pakistan, and has a long record of supplying missiles to Saudi Arabia. Although some analysts claim that China is becoming a good citizen of the proliferation regime, and certainly now shows considerable anxiety about Pyongyang, its military ties to Pakistan remain as robust as ever, if not stronger.

The history of Chinese policies to orchestrate a network of such secondary and tertiary proliferation to include North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, and the reports that the missiles involved in this Saudi-Pakistani deal come from China, all lead one to ponder to what degree China knows about this relationship and supports it as another way of weakening the US by undermining its alliances and by disseminating nuclear know-how around the world to multiply potential threats to American forces and capabilities abroad.

While one cannot know what role China may have here; it is clear that this issue of a Saudi-Pakistani connection has the potential to become a major threat to many states and to trigger another international crisis in both the Middle East and South Asia. If there is anything the world does not need now it is a further escalation of the threat posed by proliferation to and from states with a record of extensive support for terrorism against their neighbors.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, PA.

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Nov 7, 2003



Pakistan as proliferator: A view from Washington
(Jan 14, '03)

Pakistan bent on proliferation path
(Jan 3, '03)

 

 
   
         
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