Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia Iran

After Khashoggi: the Saudi Missiles

Satellite images suggest that Saudi Arabia has constructed its first known ballistic missile factory, according to weapons experts and image analysts, a development that raises questions about the kingdom’s increasing military and nuclear ambitions under its 33-year-old crown prince.  If operational, the suspected factory at a missile base in al-Watah, southwest of Riyadh, would allow Saudi Arabia to manufacture its own ballistic missiles, fueling fears of an arms race against its regional rival Iran.  Saudi Arabia currently does not possess nuclear weapons, so any missiles produced at the apparent factory are likely to be conventionally armed. But a missile-making facility would be a critical component of any eventual Saudi nuclear weapons program, hypothetically giving the kingdom capability to produce the preferred delivery systems for nuclear warheads.

Two additional missile experts who reviewed the satellite images for The Washington Post… agreed that the high-resolution photographs of the al-Watah site appear to depict a ­rocket-engine production and test facility, probably using solid fuel…The complex…highlights the nation’s intention to make its own advanced missiles after years of seeking to purchase them abroad, at times successfully….

Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a nuclear power-plant deal with the United States that would potentially include allowing it to produce nuclear fuel. The kingdom’s insistence on domestic fuel production has raised worries among U.S. officials that the kingdom wants the atomic power project not only for civil use but also for covert weapon-making purposes. ..

How the Saudis obtained the technological expertise necessary to build the facility is unclear. One potential supplier: China…China has sold ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the past and has helped supply ballistic missile production capabilities to other nations. In the 1990s, Pakistan secretly built a plant for medium-range missiles using blueprints and equipment supplied by China. The factory in Pakistan has long drawn the attention of top Saudi officials. ..

The main way the United States seeks to prevent the spread of drone and missile technology is through the Missile Technology Control Regime, or the MTCR, an informal multicountry pact designed to prevent the transfer of certain missile technologies. China is not a member but has agreed to abide by some of its stipulations.   While the United States sells an array of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, Washington has not sold ballistic missiles to Riyadh, in part because such missiles traditionally have been seen as destabilizing for the region. Saudi Arabia has turned to China in the past when met with refusals from the United States for certain weapons requests.

For example, the United States declined repeated Saudi requests to purchase what are known as category-one American drones, including Predators and Reapers, partly because of MTCR’s regulations. Instead, the kingdom turned to China, first purchasing drones and later striking a deal in which China will build a drone factory that will produce a Chinese copycat of the Predator in Saudi Arabia.

Excerpts Paul Sonne, Can Saudi Arabia produce ballistic missiles? Satellite imagery raises suspicions, Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2019

Let the Race Begin: Nuclear Saudi Arabia v. Iran

In the desert 220km (137 miles) from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a South Korean firm is close to finishing the Arab world’s first operational nuclear-power reactor. The project started ten years ago in Washington, where the Emiratis negotiated a “123 agreement”. Such deals, named after a clause in America’s export-control laws, impose tough safeguards in return for American nuclear technology. When the UAE signed one in 2009, it also pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Both can be used to make nuclear weapons. Arms-control wonks called it the gold standard of 123 deals.

Saudi Arabia… has its own ambitious nuclear plans: 16 reactors, at a cost of up to $80bn. But, unlike the UAE, it wants to do its own enrichment. Iran, its regional rival, is already a step ahead. The most controversial provision of the nuclear deal it signed with world powers in 2015 allows it to enrich uranium. Iran did agree to mothball most of the centrifuges used for enrichment, and to process the stuff only to a level far below what is required for a bomb. Still, it kept the technology. The Saudis want to have it, too… Indeed, critics of the Iran deal fear that a Saudi enrichment programme would compromise their effort to impose tighter restrictions on Iran. But Donald Trump, America’s president, is less concerned. He has close ties with the Saudis. He has also pledged to revitalise America’s ailing nuclear industry. Among the five firms bidding for the Saudi project is Westinghouse, an American company that filed for bankruptcy last year. It would not be able to join the project without a 123 agreement…One is Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company, which is pursuing a frenetic sort of nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. In December it signed a $21.3bn contract to build Egypt’s first power reactor. Jordan inked a $10bn deal with the Russians in 2015. Despite their differences, particularly over Syria, the Saudis are keen to have closer ties with the region’s resurgent power [Russia]. King Salman spent four days in Moscow in October 2017, the first such visit by a Saudi ruler.

Excerpt from Nuclear Power in the Middle East: An Unenriching debate, Economist,  Feb. 10, 2018

Nuclear Benefits – Pakistan/Saudi Arabia Friendship

The Pakistani Parliament, even while stating its commitment to protect the territory of Saudi Arabia, recently adopted a resolution not to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen….The foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, blasted the decision as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected,” accusing Pakistan of advancing Iran’s interests rather than those of its own Persian Gulf allies. Pakistan was choosing neutrality in an “existential confrontation,” he said, and it would pay the price… Millions of Pakistanis work in the Persian Gulf, sending back vast remittances. Many of Pakistan’s politicians and generals have major investments in the region, and some have a deep affinity for Wahhabism. Rich Arabs in Pakistan are treated like royalty, allowed to flout hunting and environmental protection laws… [S]ome backpedaling has begun. The Pakistani military agreed to commit naval vessels to help enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis. This, however, will not undo the damage: The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s ties with its Arab benefactors, even if it turns out to be temporary, is unprecedented.

For Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Parliament’s surprising assertion of independence was especially worrisome because it came on the heels of the American-backed preliminary nuclear deal with Iran…This development undermines Saudi Arabia’s longstanding nuclear strategy. In the 1970s, partly to extend its influence, partly in the name of Muslim solidarity, it began bankrolling Pakistan’s nuclear program. In gratitude, the Pakistani government renamed the city of Lyallpur as Faisalabad, after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. When Pakistan seemed to dither after India tested five nuclear bombs in May 1998, the Saudi government pledged to give it 50,000 barrels of oil a day for free. Pakistan soon tested six of its own bombs. Later, the Saudi defense minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the secret nuclear and missile facilities at the Kahuta complex near Islamabad… In exchange for its largesse, Saudi Arabia has received Pakistani military assistance in the form of soldiers, expertise and ballistic missiles.

The Saudi government has taken the quid pro quo to imply certain nuclear benefits as well, including, if need be, the delivery at short notice of some of the nuclear weapons it has helped pay for. Some Pakistani warheads are said to have been earmarked for that purpose and reportedly are stocked at the Minhas air force base in Kamra, near Islamabad. (Pakistan, which has as many as 120 nuclear warheads, denies this..)

The Saudis have also come to expect that they fall under the nuclear protection of Pakistan, much like, say, Japan is covered by the United States’s nuclear umbrella. Pakistan’s nuclear forces were developed to target India, but they can strike farther, as was recently demonstrated by the successful test launch of the Shaheen-3 missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with South Korea “to assess the potential” for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It plans to build 16 nuclear-power reactors over the next 20 years, with the first reactor expected to be on line in 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association. It insists on having a full civilian fuel cycle, leaving open the possibility of reprocessing weapon-grade plutonium from nuclear waste.

Excerpts, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan, the Saudis’ Indispensable Nuclear Partnership, NY Times, Apr. 21, 2015

Nuclear Power Love – Saudi Arabia

The government of Saudi Arabia is feeling anxiety over the evident progress in nuclear talks between the United States and Iran. Indeed, as Riyadh’s regional rival moves closer to receiving international recognition for its nuclear program, the kingdom’s own nuclear aspirations seem to have stalled completely: a proposed U.S.-Saudi nuclear agreement has been at a standstill for six years. And the stalled talks are only one of several issues that have hurt the relationship between Riyadh and Washington in recent years.

The U.S.-Saudi nuclear talks were initiated in 2008, when then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation. At the time, many observers expected that the two countries were forging a new pillar for their 80-year-long strategic partnership. Indeed, Saudi Arabia soon announced its intention to build 16 nuclear power plants (at an estimated cost of $112 billion), which would have made it the world’s largest civilian nuclear program and generated tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for the kingdom’s growing population. Riyadh has justified its nuclear ambitions by pointing to the country’s dependence on oil and gas exports, which constitute 80 percent of national revenue; if Saudi Arabia could meet its own growing energy demands through nuclear energy, it wouldn’t have to curtail its sale of oil on the international market.

But before Saudi Arabia enjoys its first watt of nuclear energy, it needs to find partners who are willing to help build its nuclear infrastructure—and at the moment, the United States doesn’t seem willing to play that role. Washington has said that it would first need to reach an agreement with Riyadh on adherence to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a U.S. law that regulates nuclear commerce—and those efforts have stalled over the question of whether Saudi Arabia would be subject to the so-called Gold Standard provision that would proscribe Riyadh from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium.

Riyadh is unsurprisingly incensed at any suggestion that it wouldn’t be accorded the same right to enrich uranium that the United States effectively granted to Iran under the interim agreement between those two countries. Sources familiar with the negotiations say that Riyadh has argued that the Gold Standard represents an unacceptable infringement on its national sovereignty, emphasizing that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, stipulates that countries have a right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

The White House has so far seemed reluctant to offer any compromise….Complicating matters is the fact that Israel is likely to oppose any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia that doesn’t adhere to the Gold Standard and will pressure its allies in Washington to do the same. (Israel tacitly approved the 2009 nuclear deal between the United States and the UAE, which was compliant with the Gold Standard.)

Saudi Arabia, should it fail to reach an understanding with Washington, might instead choose to partner with either France or Russia to develop its nuclear program. Last January, during a state visit by French President François Hollande to Riyadh, the French company Areva, the world’s largest nuclear firm, signed a Me moandums of Understanding with five Saudi companies that aim to develop the industrial and technical skills of local companies. Similarly, the CEO of Russia’s Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, announced in July that Russia and Saudi Arabia expect to sign an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation later this year. If Saudi Arabia follows through on these agreements, it would be to the detriment of U.S. companies—and, perhaps, the broader U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership.

At present, a compromise between Saudi Arabia and the United States seems unlikely…. [But] One promising precedent is the U.S.-Vietnam nuclear agreement of 2014, which allowed Hanoi to obtain any nuclear reactor fuel that it needs for its reactors from the international market, rather than produce the material itself—a model that was dubbed the Silver Standard. This arrangement would likely be acceptable to Riyadh, as it is consistent with the agreement that Rice and Faisal signed in 2008. It’s unclear, however, whether it would be acceptable to Congress. U.S. politicians who claim to fear “Saudi nukes”—or the prospect that Riyadh’s nuclear program could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists—are unlikely to accept anything short of the Gold Standard.

Excerpt, Sigurd Neubauer, Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Envy, Foreign Affairs, Nov. 16, 2014