Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambition

IO: Encouraged by the regime’s hawks, King Abdullah is pondering the launch of Saudi Arabia’s own military nuclear programme.

A discreet delegation from the U.S. Department of Energy travelled to Saudi Arabia in late August to meet Dr Hashim Yamani, director of the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy. Discussions centred on the application of a memorandum of nuclear cooperation signed in May 2008 by Washington and Riyadh. Like neighbouring United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia would like to build nuclear power plants to meet its energy needs when its oil reserves run out. But the civil programme hides other, military, intentions.

The Saudis have been divided about the nuclear programme since plans were first mooted in 2006. Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the defence minister, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) are in favour of the creation of a covert nuclear programme in cooperation with Pakistan. The goal is to create an equilibrium of sorts with Iran, which is poised to have its own nuclear bomb in the next few years.

Saud al-Faisal, the minister of foreign affairs, and Naif bin Abdulaziz, the interior minister, do not want to take that route, and would prefer Saudi Arabia to come under the umbrella of another country’s nuclear protection, either the U.S.’ or Pakistan’s. In recent months, however, the Saudi hawks have been gaining the upper hand in their efforts to influence King Abdullah, and seem poised to win out.

In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia helped to finance Pakistan’s nuclear programme in exchange for the promise of future cooperation. In 2004, Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi deputy defence minister, visited theKahuta Research Laboratory (KRL), Pakistan’s nuclear arms facility (IOL 486), and two years later so did his father, the defence minister (IOL 522).

This summer several Pakistani nuclear scientists travelled to Riyadh, ostensibly on a pilgrimage. However they are understood to have met advisors to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council. Bandar, who is in favour of a covert nuclear programme, travelled to Kazakhstan in July, where he met representatives of the state-owned uranium companyKazatomprom.