top of page

And what if Saudi Arabia were the owner of nuclear missiles?

In any body politic there will be a group of powerful people who, if not in the inner circle of the president or prime minister, can win access to it at regular intervals. Security is their profession, and they can be met at discrete academic conferences where they tend to stand out as rather earnest, if sombre, figures. It is they who bend the ear of those in authority, consistent in their solicitations even as governments change, arguing that their country will only have true security if they possess a nuclear deterrent and that if their advice is not heeded one day there will be an enemy who will take advantage of their country's naiveté. The politicians whose ears they bend have won their authority not by knowing about the world outside their own country and its discontents but by climbing the ladder in domestic politics, perhaps becoming expert in one or two things e.g. tax law, civil rights, transport, climate change or the economy, very rarely in military and geo-political matters. They are often putty in the hands of these would-be nuclear strategists and nuclear bomb makers.

One of these I knew reasonably well, the erudite and charming nuclear physicist, the late Dr Munir Khan, one of the fathers of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, who, it was said - although no proof was ever forthcoming - had used his previous position as a high official in the International Atomic Energy Agency to build clandestine contacts for Pakistan's bomb makers. He explained to me, long after he was retired, how he and his fellow nuclear scientists manipulated the civilian leadership.

The late Olof Palme, prime minister of Sweden for many years, told me of how he had to "de-fang" the nuclear bomb establishment that was well under way with its plans when he came to power. It is not easy to roll back the nuclear lobby even when one is prime minister - there is always the danger, if you don't take the scientists along with you, that they, believing they love the country more than the prime minister does, will conduct their future researches clandestinely or, if not in secret, under the guise of using it for "peaceful purposes" and await for the political currents to turn in their favour. This happened in white-ruled South Africa.

This is also in essence what happened in India. An authoritative study, "The Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan" (Praeger) written by Haider Nizamani makes clear that their nuclear bomb programmes did not originate in response to specific security problems. Adversaries were not the cause. Rather, they had to be found. This explains India's remarkable decision to put its bomb development on ice after its successful "peaceful" nuclear test in 1974. The "threat" from China had gone quiet and Pakistan, for all the acrimony, did not seem a real threat. ¨

Only in the 1990s, by arguing that China with its nuclear weapons was becoming an enemy, were the bomb advocates able to win the ear of the politicians and alterative voices were gradually marginalized as "unpatriotic". One of the pivotal figures was the strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam who by sheer doggedness transformed a minority opinion into a mainstream assumption. His calculation, correct as it turned out, is once a certain threshold has been crossed popular opinion, invariably nationalistic, will succumb to the call of patriotism. With the rise of the Hindu-nationalist party, the BJP, the bomb became inevitable.

We now see the same process afoot in Saudi Arabia. A couple of dozen years ago in this column I tried to draw attention to Saudi Arabia's purchase of Chinese CSS-2 rockets. I wrote then that there could be no question these had not been purchased for conventional military activity, as they were unnecessarily powerful and, moreover, inaccurate with a normal explosive warhead. Their sole real purpose was to carry a nuclear weapon. The Saudi military and strategists in effect hoodwinked the king and the ruling princes, persuading them that these rockets were the best deal on the market and the fact they could carry nuclear warheads was at that time irrelevant since they worked well with conventional warheads

For years, Western nuclear powers have connived to keep this, if not secret, quiet. Saudi Arabia has been a strategic ally, most important and long-standing, in the oil business. As successive administrations in Washington have viewed it, discretion has been the better part of valour, even though one of the targets for a Saudi bomb could be the Middle East's other nuclear-bomb power, Israel, America’s staunch friend.

An article by Richard Russell in Survival, the quarterly of the influential International Institute for Strategic Studies, argued that whilst Saudi Arabia has not yet put nuclear warheads on these rockets it is probably only a matter of time before it does. Self-serving security issues are far more important in such decision-making that "an innate friendship" with the U.S.

For the desert kingdom with its small population and army but huge territory, nuclear weapons appear a sensible option.

After Washington belatedly discovered the purchase of the CSS-2s from China, 31 senators called on the Reagan Administration to suspend American arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis were not intimidated. Requests by Washington to inspect the missiles have been refused. Saudi Arabia this year has become even more self-assertive, linking up with Russia to keep oil prices high. These days Saudi Arabia seems not to care a hoot what Washington wants of it.

As Israel long has, Saudi Arabia will always deny the intention to build a nuclear armoury. But common sense and much circumstantial evidence suggest that this is the way it will go. It is not the so-called "rogues" who pose the threat of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation; it is some of the Western powers' "nearest and dearest".

With Saudi Arabia now being led by the quite unscrupulous, not to say amoral, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, I would not be surprised to see him making the decision to go nuclear. A warhead would be easily purchasable from Saudi Arabia’s friend, Pakistan, a country that also likes to keep its distance from America.

What is Washington going to do about that?


bottom of page