Saudi Nuclear Program: A Mirage of Progress

Saudi King Abdullah (C), South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak (2nd R) and his wife Kim Yoon-ok (R) attend the 27th Janadriya festival on the outskirts of Riyadh 8 February 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Ali Abdullatif)

By: Hosam Matar

Published Thursday, February 9, 2012

Saudi Arabia recently declared its intention to launch its own nuclear program.

The announcement was made in December by the Minister of Commerce and Industry Abdullah Zainal, who said 375 billion riyals (US$100 billion) would be spent on building 16 nuclear power plants to generate electricity in different parts of the kingdom.

This was later confirmed by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who indicated that other member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are also “studying the economics of nuclear energy.”

But the timing of the announcement indicates that political, security, and strategic considerations are most important in this case.

The program, should it materialize, would have major implications for the region, especially in terms of nuclear proliferation.

The prospect of a Saudi nuclear program should be examined in relation to the strategic shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, the development of the Iranian nuclear program, Israel’s security, and the Saudi regime’s political calculations.

Saudi Arabia certainly has the financial resources to embark on such a program. It seems likely that the other Gulf states would also participate – especially in light of the Saudi monarch’s recent call on the GCC countries to move toward the formation of political union.

It is not surprising that such an appeal would come from Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s core member and heavyweight nor that it should be made at this particular political moment in the region.

The Gulf states feel abandoned and vulnerable.

In this context, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions could be seen as part of its proposal for Gulf unity – which would need to be grounded in a combination of economic integration, a common security and political vision, and a consensus on the GCC region’s and role.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has a severe shortage of skilled specialists and trained scientists. Any Saudi nuclear program, in contrast to its Iranian counterpart, would be completely dependent on foreign parties.

The prospect of the Gulf states going nuclear has long been raised by US advocates of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. They argue that acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power would encourage other countries in the Middle East to establish their own nuclear programs for security reasons. This in turn would undermine US efforts to limit nuclear proliferation in a region rife with fundamentalists, fragile states, and tensions.

Accordingly, the Saudi decision may stem from a belief that Iran has crossed the point-of-no-return in its nuclear program. The Saudis also believe that international and regional adversaries have effectively acquiesced to that, realizing that they are unable to act against it militarily.

Alternatively, the kingdom could be trying to provoke the US and Israel in order to push them to adopt a harder line toward Tehran.

It is more likely, however, that Riyadh has come to appreciate that signing up to US schemes in the region is no longer an adequate guarantee of security. Washington has served notice that it wants to shed its Middle Eastern burdens, and that its allies should take more responsibility for safeguarding their interests and security.

American opponents of the proposed Saudi nuclear scheme can be expected to cite three objections.

First, that nuclear material might fall into the hands of Saudi extremists, or that hardliners might assume power in a country with a fragile and troubled political system. The same fears apply in the US-Pakistani relationship.

Second, they will argue that there is a serious danger of the program becoming militarized, which would pose a direct challenge to Israel’s strategic supremacy in the region.

Third, the Saudi program might trigger a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East.

From the Saudi viewpoint, the program is partly prompted by a perceived need to transform the established image of Saudi Arabia from a state with a reactionary and corrupt rentier regime that is subservient to the West, to one of modernity, progress, and science.

This has greatly undermined Saudi Arabia’s soft power – which is essentially based on sectarian proselytizing and pumping money – and thus its ability to attract and win over hearts and minds. Its capacity to wield or expand its influence and affect moments of regional transition suffers badly as a result.

The Arab Spring provided an important illustration of the limitations of Saudi soft power. Despite its tremendous financial capabilities, the kingdom occupies a back seat. Qatar and Turkey have operated with greater freedom and are better equipped to influence the course of the current transformation taking place in the region.

The Saudis thus realize how badly they need to change the image the kingdom created for itself, and that exceptional initiatives are required to achieve this goal.

Since the regime is not about to change the nature of its internal policies, it has opted to launch initiatives in other areas that do not threaten the regime’s control over Saudi society.

In this regard, the Saudi regime pushed the idea of a nuclear program to the forefront as a key element in reconstituting Saudi soft power, especially at the present juncture in Arab history, when the Saudis feel that they are “a beacon without light.”

The Saudi nuclear initiative therefore does not target Iran as much as it aims to reinforce the Saudi regime’s internal legitimacy and strengthen popular cohesion around the Saudi leadership, which is plagued with uncertainty, behind-the-scenes rivalries, and political infirmity.

The move also seeks to strengthen the kingdom’s regional presence, given the rise of regional powers like Egypt and Turkey that it cannot use sectarian discourse to confront.

Ultimately, the Saudi regime needs to realize that its problems run deeper than its need for a nuclear program. Even if the kingdom were to acquire a nuclear capability, that would not enable it to overcome its crises. That would require a fundamental reformulation of the Saudi state, the legitimacy of its regime, and the nature of its role.

The Saudi regime’s problem is not limited to its appearance. Political plastic surgery will not be able to achieve much. The regime is not merely unsightly. Its more serious affliction lies in its heart. And treating the heart, if possible, takes priority over treating the face.

Housam Matar is a Lebanese writer.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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