It’s the Middle East arms race that many people don’t want to talk about. The White House may be preoccupied with Iran’s past pursuit of nuclear weapons and its present strategic status in the region. But simmering nearby is another rapid militarization, conducted by a favored family of the White House, the House of Saud.
US President Donald Trump’s fanfare over an arms deal with Saudi Arabia he boasted was worth $110 billion was dampened when, by October last year, it had generated only $14 billion in confirmed purchases.
As if to make up for the shortfall, the administration last month sidestepped Congress and invoked emergency powers to expedite $8 billion in weapons sales to Riyadh, the UAE and a number of other countries in the face of what the White House has called the escalating Iran threat. While the US breathlessly pursued its favored ally, it insisted that Tehran curtail its military ambitions, or face further US action.
But the Saudis aren’t just shopping in the US for arms, and they’re not just shopping for conventional weapons, either. Riyadh seems to be using its favored ally status and the general sense of geopolitical turmoil to sweep up whatever it can, including with Washington’s rivals.
According to classified intelligence initially kept from Congress but eventually revealed to CNN, the Saudis turned to China in recent years for help in have been expanding their ballistic missile program.
A voluntary 1987 pact bars Riyadh from buying US technology that could carry weapons of mass destruction, so, it is alleged Saudi Arabia sought assistance from Beijing. Similar transactions may also have been conducted in the past decade. It’s unclear precisely what the purchases amounted to, but they are yet another sign of the Kingdom’s aggressive pursuit of the best arsenal in the region.
The US State Department insists the Saudis remain committed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. For its part, the Kingdom has been open about its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency which sent a team to Saudi Arabia last July to inspect building plans. It has repeatedly pledged that the program is peaceful. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year that “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
While there is no indication that the Saudis are seeking a nuclear weapon now, they are in the market for increasing amounts of nuclear technology – which might seem a curious appetite for a nation with enormous hydrocarbon reserves, drenched in plentiful sunlight.
An Argentinian research reactor has been developed on the outskirts of Riyadh. And, more controversially, the Kingdom has pursued nuclear technology from several undisclosed US companies.
These firms have received seven authorizations from the US Department of Energy to share sensitive information. The so-called 810 authorizations have been the subject of significant anger from Democratic lawmakers, who have objected to the unusual secrecy in which they have been handled – the dates when the authorizations were granted only revealed on Tuesday after two months of Senate Democrat pressure. The names of the companies were nonetheless kept secret.
Two of them occurred at the height of international criticism of US support for the Saudi regime, after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. One was finalized just 16 days after Khashoggi’s death.
Hinting that some of the US companies involved in the transfer might be close to the Trump family, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said in a statement he had “serious questions about whether any decisions on nuclear transfers were made based on the Trump family’s financial ties rather than the interests of the American people.”
Jared Kushner, a Trump advisor and son in law, refused in a recent interview with Axios on HBO to discuss his private communications with the Crown Prince, with whom he is known to be close.
Saudi officials have suggested the nuclear reactors would be useful in pursuing sea-water desalination, but the secretive nature of the acquisitions has led to concerns of a wider agenda. Iran was heavily criticised in the early 2000s when it sought nuclear technology for reactors from Russia, only later being accused of an aggressive nuclear weapons program.
Exactly where the White House’s decision to bend itself out of shape to suit the Saudi’s current thirst for more and better weapons, in a region already exhausted by conflict, will lead in the years ahead is unclear.