Editor’s Note: Nawaf Obaid is a visiting fellow and associate instructor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His also a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and a distinguished fellow at the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations. The views expressed are his own.
Now that the Obama administration has largely given up its resistance to Iran’s development of some kind of nuclear program, the Middle East is poised to see a change in the balance of power. As the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom recently stated, should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, “all options” could be on the table when it comes to the Saudi response. That could include an indigenous nuclear program. And although some commentators remain skeptical about the Kingdom’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, I would argue that it actually has the will and the ability to do so.
There are six core components that a country must possess in order to create a nuclear program capable of being weaponized: 1) an adequate educational system, 2) skilled scientists, 3) financial means, 4) technological infrastructure, 5) belief there is a pressing security threat, and 6) the national will and leadership to do so. Saudi Arabia possesses each of these.
For a start, the Saudi educational system, especially in the sciences, has improved in recent years, and is undergoing changes that should see even greater progress. Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s education budget has more than doubled since 2005, with more than $350 billion spent on education since then. Indeed, in 2014, spending on education and training represented about a quarter of the governmental budget, and the Saudi leadership has funded a massive foreign scholarship program that has seen more than 200,000 Saudis studying abroad. As a result, Saudi Arabia is the third largest student “exporter” after China and India.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has had nuclear physicists with PhD’s from Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other top U.S. universities conducting advanced research in nuclear physics at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) for decades before the King Abdullah Atomic Energy City (KACARE) was created and took over all nuclear matter. As detailed in a 2011 KACARE white paper on the government’s civil nuclear strategy, a select committee of Saudi nuclear scientists has already conducted groundbreaking research on an elaborate civil nuclear program. With this in mind, as a Washington Institute for Near East Policy policy brief notes, plans are in place for the “construction of sixteen nuclear power reactors over the next twenty years at a cost of about $80 billion.” King Salman is expected to give his final blessing before the end of this year.
Depending on how the Iranian negotiations conclude, the Saudi leadership will form a similar select committee to draft a white paper on a weaponized nuclear program. One of the underlying fundamentals of Saudi nuclear strategy has been to have a program based on indigenous technology to ensure that the entire fuel cycle remains under Saudi control. In short, the country doesn’t want to buy nuclear weapons from countries like Pakistan.
The current Saudi nuclear scientific community is perfectly capable of mastering the complexities of such a program. Since the end of World War II, the technology associated with producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium has become more efficient and has served as the cornerstone of most civilian nuclear programs around the world.
Is there a widespread belief that Saudi Arabia faces an impending national security threat, which would motivate it to want to develop a nuclear weapon? In short, yes. Iran has pursued an intrusive, insurrectionary policy in Arab countries with Shia communities, some of them directly surrounding the Kingdom. A nuclear Iran would be viewed as a direct threat to the Kingdom, and a response of equal measure would be considered prudent, necessary and justified.
Finally, the required national will and leadership to create a nuclear program is clear. Saudi nationalism is on the rise and the Saudi people expect their leaders to take a strong stance in these difficult times. The revitalized foreign and defense policy doctrines being adopted by King Salman have brought a great deal of hope to Arabs across the region. The Saudi monarch is utilizing his Kingdom’s unique religious legitimacy and enormous political, financial and military means to project sustained power and unify the Arab world.
The thinking in Washington seems to be that Saudi Arabia should remain a passive player in the Middle East, with even President Obama suggesting the Kingdom should not develop a nuclear program. Instead, there is talk of a “nuclear umbrella” that would supposedly safeguard Gulf states including Saudi Arabia against a nuclear Iran. But this is completely unacceptable to the Saudi leadership. As with any important nation with global responsibilities, it is a matter of vital national security that the Kingdom be able to defend itself and its allies from hostile outside forces. A nuclear Iran is one such force. With the U.S. continuing to move in the direction of allowing such a development, the Kingdom can only look to itself to protect its people, even if this means implementing a nuclear program. And make no mistake, it has the scientists to develop the technology, finances, and national will to do so.