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Saudi Arabia's nuclear ambitions

Wesley Dockery
March 20, 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stated that the Kingdom could develop nuclear weapons if Iran also does so. What would this mean for the Middle East and how would Israel and Egypt view such an arms race?

Saudi King Mohammaed bin Salman during a cabinet meeting
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Saudi Press Agency

In an interview with US broadcaster CBS last week, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said that "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bombs, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."

Saudi Arabia and Iran cut off relations in 2016 after an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Since then, the Saudis have been even more wary of Iran expanding its influence in the Middle East. 

Riyadh expressed its nuclear ambitions in 2009 when a royal degree said that "the development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom's growing requirement for energy to generate electricity."

Israeli view 'very negative'

When asked how Israel would respond to Saudi Arabia ultimately developing nuclear weapons, Shlomo Brom, an Israeli senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies said: "The Israeli view would be very negative and they would do whatever is needed to prevent it." While the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia is reasonably stable right now, that could change in the future, he explained, making it risky for Israel should the Saudis pursue nuclear weapons.

"If you are talking about mutual deterrence between two parties, that is a relatively simple situation," Brom said. "If you are talking about three parties, that is less stable and much more complicated."

Egypt growing closer to Saudi Arabia

Egyptian President Fattah el-Sissi meeting with King Salman
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have grown closer under el-SissiImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Egypt, under President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, has signed multiple military agreements with Saudi Arabia in an effort to deepen ties with the kingdom as a counterbalance to Iran. Adel Suleiman, the head of the Strategic Dialogue Forum for Defense Studies and Military Relations, said in an interview with DW that Egypt itself promotes nuclear energy, but only for peaceful purposes. The country is developing its own nuclear energy facilities on its Dabaa coast with Russian assistance.

Although Egypt is concerned for Saudi Arabia's security, Suleiman said the country deals with regional crises "rationally," noting that Cairo supported, but did not actually participate in Riyadh's ongoing military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Nuclear energy for peaceful purposes

If Saudi Arabia does pursue a nuclear program, Israel would push for it to be purely civilian in nature, Brom said. He suggested the Saudis could emulate the United Arab Emirates nuclear program, one that Brom said is purely peaceful in nature, transparent and a "gold standard." The term "gold standard" was originally used by Barbara Judge, a former chairwoman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, who called the UAE's nuclear energy program a "model for the rest of the world."

Read more: Iran nuclear deal under pressure as Pompeo heads to State Department

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia and Iran both weaponizing their nuclear programs could not only complicate the balance of power in the Middle East, but could prove detrimental to their respective security interests. "If both Iran and Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear weapons it would then raise the probability of either nation eventually using them," Brom said. "I don't think anybody wishes to see such a thing happening."

Additional reporting by Ismail Azzam

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