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Are the Saudis reconsidering their nuclear posture?

A rule in journalism is that a response to a question is not a statement of a new government policy. So, what should one make of the comment on Sunday by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud that “if Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off”? Speaking at a conference in Abu Dhabi, he went on: “We are in a very dangerous space in the region. … You can expect that regional states will certainly look towards how they can ensure their own security.”

His words are very newsworthy, which explains why they were promptly picked up by Reuters and other outlets. But do they amount to a new Saudi policy of matching Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions, as was suggested by its effective ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018, when he told CBS News: “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”?

An additional complication for policy analysts trying to work out the exact significance of the Saudi foreign minister’s latest remarks is that the word “operational” lacks definition and the expression “all bets are off” means everything is unpredictable, rather than it has become a certainty. Nevertheless, other factors, historical and recent, suggest the nuclear dimension of Persian Gulf politics is again in flux, at least, given its oil and natural gas resources, adding an additional element of uncertainty to the current and deepening world energy crisis.

Just last week there was expected to be a possible nuclear angle to the visit of President Xi Jinping of China to Saudi Arabia, where he also attended summits including leaders of the other Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the wider Arab world. In August 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia had “constructed with Chinese help a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore … [which] has raised concern among U.S. and allied officials that the kingdom’s nascent nuclear program is moving ahead and that Riyadh is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons.”

Officials have been on the alert over the weekend to spot any new nuclear development. After all, there is a backstory. The missiles that China sold Saudi Arabia more than 30 years ago were capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, and the kingdom has close relations with Pakistan, which 40 years ago traded centrifuge enrichment technology for Chinese weapon designs and a couple of warheads’ worth of highly-enriched material.

How much would China help Saudi Arabia? The answer is unclear. Beijing had its knuckles firmly rapped by Washington for its transactions with Pakistan, being cut off from civil nuclear technology in the 1980s until it recovered its transferred nuclear material from a reluctant Islamabad. But China might be largely a spectator this time, watching while Pakistan plays a larger role. Riyadh is seen by those in the know as having likely been the fourth customer for the proliferator Dr. A.Q. Khan, who was 100 percent blamed for the technology transfers, which also went to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Khan’s co-conspirator, by this account, was the Pakistan Army, which has just appointed a new head, General Asim Munir.

The Pakistan media, admittedly a wide spectrum of reliability, is speculating that Munir will shortly make a visit to Saudi Arabia. The country is also reportedly seeking a $4.2 billion loan from the kingdom to bolster its dire foreign exchange reserves.

It is not only Saudi Arabia that is reconsidering its diplomatic posture. Speaking at the same conference as the Saudi foreign minister, but a day earlier, Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser to President Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), warned European countries that come to the Gulf seeking emergency energy supplies that the engagement should not be “transactional.” More ambiguously he said, referring to the languishing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran nuclear pact: “This is an opportunity for all of us to come and revisit the whole concept.” Unlike its ally Saudi Arabia, the UAE has agreed to a so-called “123 Agreement” with Washington forswearing nuclear enrichment and reprocessing (although such an agreement does have an escape clause).

On Sunday, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed described his country’s relations with Saudi Arabia as “strategic, strong and sustainable.” Whether the “sustainable” bit is an acknowledgement to current green concerns or not, the words would not fit in with any description of current U.S. relations with the Gulf. Washington seems to be cast, at least in Gulf eyes, in a spectator role.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Iran Iran nuclear weapons Middle East Mohammed bin Salman Pakistan Saudi Arabia Xi Jinping

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