Saudi Arabia does not have weapons of mass destruction. It did, however, buy long-range CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China in 1988. More recently, Saudi officials have discussed the procurement of new Pakistani intermediate-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Some concern remains that Saudi Arabia, like its neighbors, may be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, apparently by purchase rather than indigenous development. While there is no direct evidence that Saudi Arabia has chosen a nuclear option, the Saudis have in place a foundation for building a nuclear deterrent.
Saudi Arabia is widely believed to have bankrolled the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. In exchange, Riyadh reportedly expects Islamabad to provide missiles in times of trouble to defend the kingdom. “For the Saudis the moment has come," a former American defense official told The Sunday Times newspaper 17 May 2015. “There has been a longstanding agreement in place with the Pakistanis, and the House of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward." According to the report, no actual transfer of weapons has taken place yet, but “the Saudis mean what they say and they will do what they say," the source reportedly said.
Saudi Arabia may trigger a new kind of arms race in the Middle East, as leaders insist the gulf state wants to match Iran's newly established nuclear enrichment capabilities. The nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran may allow Tehran to keep up to 5,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium. Saudi delegates to a rare summit of Gulf leaders with President Obama made it clear that the deal means they feel they must match Iran's level of enrichment. "We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research," one Saudi delegate who wished to remain anonymous told the New York Times before the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began on 14 May 2015.
The former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, also told a conference in South Korea, "Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too." Ironically, the avoidance of just such an arms race was a central argument of the Obama administration in favor of a deal that would include the ability to monitor Iran's program. "It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons," Obama said in 2012.
“The Saudi Arabian leadership has said that Saudi Arabia will go nuclear," former U.S. ambassador Mark Wallace, now the chief executive officer at the Counter Extremism Project and co-founder of United Against Nuclear Iran [UANI] said in April 2015. “That may be as easy as paying for and taking delivery of a bomb from Pakistan."
The Saudis also appear to be cultivating other options. In March 2015, Riyadh signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with South Korea to look into the possibility of building two nuclear reactors at a cost of about $2 billion.
Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project of the Washington-based Brookings Institute, wrote in 2008 that Pakistan has “an unacknowledged nuclear partnership to provide the kingdom with a nuclear deterrent on short notice if ever needed."
A BBC Newsnight story in 2013 declared that Saudi nuclear weapons were practically “on order" from Pakistan. “Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will," the story said based on sources.
In March 2015, a Wall Street Journal story on Saudi nuclear ambitions declared: “Saudi officials have told successive U.S. administrations they expect to have Pakistan’s support in the nuclear field, if called upon, because of the kingdom’s massive financial support for the South Asian country."
Saudi Arabia first opened a nuclear research center in the desert military complex at Al-Suleiyel, near Al-Kharj, in 1975. Saudi Arabia reportedly offered to pay for reconstruction of the Osirak-reactor, destructed by Israel on 06 June 1981. By at least 1985 Iraqi and Saudi military and nuclear experts were co-operating closely. Saudi nuclear scientists were sent to Baghdad for months of training.
In late June 1994 Muhammad Khilewi, the second-in-command of the Saudi mission to the United Nations, abandoned his UN post to join the opposition. After defecting, Mr. Khilewi, who was denied federal protection, went into hiding, fearing for his life. He has tried to distribute more than 10,000 documents he obtained from the Saudi Arabian Embassy.
Khilewi produced documents for the London Sunday Times that supported his charge that the Saudi government had paid up to five billion dollars from the Saudi treasury for Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear weapon. Between 1985 and 1990, up to the time Saddam invaded Kuwait, the payments were made on condition that some of the bombs, should the project succeed, be transferred to the Saudi arsenal. Khilewi cache included transcripts of a secret desert meeting between Saudi and Iraqi military teams a year before the invasion of Kuwait. The transcrips depicts the Saudis funding the nuclear program and handing over specialised equipment that Iraq could not have obtained elsewhere.
What Khilewi did not know was that the Fahd-Saddam nuclear project was also a closely held secret in Washington. According to a former high-ranking American diplomat, the CIA was fully apprised. The funding stopped only at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991.
The defector's documents also showed that Riyadh had paid for Pakistan's bomb project and signed a pact that if Saudi Arabia were attacked with nuclear weapons, Pakistan would respond against the aggressor with its own nuclear arsenal.
Khilewi's claims of possessing damning evidence against Saudi Arabia were met with some skepticism in the US Congress.
During Mr Nawaz Sharif's tenure as prime minister, Saudi Arabia appears to have begun funding Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs. The North Korean missiles ("red missiles painted green") traded for Pakistani nuclear know-how in the late 1990s took place at a time when the Pakistani economy was in shambles. Saudi Arabia appears to have bailed Pakistan out of this financial crisis.
Following Pakistan's nuclear weapons tests in May 1999, Saudi authorities denied the speculation about any possible cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the nuclear field. Saudi Arabia's second deputy prime minister, defense and aviation minister and inspector general, Prince Sultan Bin Abd al-Alziz, denied reports of Saudi attempts to acquire nuclear arms from Pakistan. Concerns about Saudi plans to buy nuclear weapons were raised after Prince Sultan toured Pakistan's secret nuclear facilities in May 1999. The prince toured the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and an adjacent factory
where the Ghauri missile is assembled with Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and was briefed by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atom bomb. The site is so secret that former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said she was not allowed to go to there during her tenure in office.
In August 1999 Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz denied viewing secret sites within the plant and insisted that Saudi Arabia, as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is seeking a region free of nuclear weapons.
Officials from the UAE had also visited Kahuta during the summer of 1999. Prince Sultan's visit to Kahuta was thought to be related to possible purchase of Pakistan's new medium-range Ghauri missile.
The Islamabad-Riyadh close cooperation was evident shortly after Pakistan's nuclear tests , when Saudi Prince Sultan visited Pakistan and toured the uranium-enrichment plant and missile-production facilities at Kahuta.
Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the mastermind behind the nuclear explosions in Pakistan, visited Riyadh to attend the November 1999 symposium on Information Sources on the Islamic World at King Faisal Hall. Dr Saleh Al-Athel, president of King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), visited Pakistan in the second week of November 1999 to work out the details for cooperation in the fields of engineering, electronics and computer sciences. The two sides explored possibilities of mutual cooperation for peaceful use of nuclear energy applications in the field of agriculture and genetic engineering.
After Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup on 12 October 1999, his first foreign tour was to Saudi Arabia. Nawaz Sharif, his younger brother and their families are living in Saudi Arabia after a deal between General Musharraf and Mr Sharif in which Riyadh had played a key role.
Press reports have speculated that China has approached the Saudis with offers to sell modern missile systems. The 600-km range CSS-6 and 1800-km range CSS-5 solid-fueled missiles have been mentioned.
Saudi Arabia is examining the prospect of raising the level of its strategic relations with Pakistan. The Saudis have accelerated talks with Islamabad for the purchase of Pakistani weapons as well as joint military and strategic projects. Riyad also seeks to exploit Pakistani's expertise in missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have already developed an array of defense and military relations. But the discussions in Riyad to expand strategic ties reflect the kingdom's concerns over its deteriorating relations with the United States.
It was reported in mid-September 2003 that Saudi Arabia had launched a strategic review that includes acquiring nuclear weapons. A strategy paper being considered at the highest levels in Riyadh sets out three options:
To acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent;
To maintain or enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection;
To try to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not considering acquiring a nuclear bomb or nuclear weapons of any kind," the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement issued on 19 September 2003. "There is no atomic energy programme in any part of the kingdom and neither is one being considered," the statement said.
On 19 October 2003 Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and an entourage of 200, including Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal and several Cabinet ministers, met with senior officials in Pakistan.
Pakistan's Premier, Mir Zafrullah Jamali, received Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Deputy Premier and Commander of the National Guard, at his palace. During the meeting, they discussed recent developments in Islamic and international arenas, and reviewed bilateral relations between the two countries and means of enhancing them. At the close of the meeting, Crown Prince Abdullah received a memorial gift from Pakistan's Prime Minister. The meeting was attended by Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister, and his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri. After the meeting, Jamali hosted a luncheon in honor of the Crown Prince. The luncheon was attended by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the official delegation accompanying the Crown Prince, and Pakistani ministers and senior officials. The Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, said in a news conference that Israeli-Indian defence cooperation would inflame the region, escalate the arms race, and damage the region's interests by triggering instability.
"Saudi Arabian officials went to Pakistan and are negotiating the purchase of nuclear warheads for their land-based missiles," head of Israel Defense Forces' Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze'evi reportedly told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on 21 October 2003. Committee chairman MK Yuval Shteinitz said this was the first time he had heard a report about Saudi Arabia's nuclear plans. "There is an assumption that Saudi Arabia financed the Pakistan nuclear plant and that there is a tacit understanding between the two countries that, if Iran becomes nuclear, Saudi Arabia will be provided with some nuclear warheads from Pakistan," Shteinitz said.
Some experts, however, doubted that the supposed nuclear arming by Saudi Arabia was as simple as calling in the debt. “I doubt that Pakistan is ready to send nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia," Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Guardian in 2015.
“Pakistan's reputation suffered greatly the last time they assisted other countries with nuclear weapons technology (i.e., the sales by [Pakistani nuclear project chief] A.Q. Khan, with some governmental support or at least acquiescence, to North Korea, Iran and Libya). Pakistan knows that transferring nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia would also incur huge diplomatic and reputational costs."
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has refused to rule out that it will seek a nuclear weapon if archrival Iran becomes a threat. In an interview January 19, 2016, Reuters news agency asked Adel al-Jubeir whether Saudi Arabia would try to get a nuclear bomb if Iran obtained one, despite its agreement with six world powers. He responded that his country would do "whatever we need to do in order to protect our people."
Jubeir said the end of Western sanctions on Iran as part of the nuclear agreement would be welcome if Iran uses unfrozen funds to improve the living standards of its people. But he said if the funds "go to support the nefarious activities of the Iranian regime, this will be a negative and it will generate a pushback."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brushed off concerns the Saudis may try to get their hands on a nuclear weapon to counter a perceived Iranian threat. "You just can't buy a bomb and transfer it," Kerry told CNN television this week, noting that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international inspections would make such a thing very difficult. He also said possessing a nuclear bomb would not make Saudi Arabia safer.