The Saudi Arabia-Pakistan Nuclear Dynamic

Over the past 24 hours, reports have emerged that Saudi Arabia is ready to take delivery of nuclear weapons from Pakistan at short notice. The Kingdom's presumed motive would be to counterbalance Iran, which it fears is actively seeking to develop atomic arms. The rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran has worsened in recent years, with the two countries supporting opposite sides in the Syrian civil war and the public unrest in Bahrain. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is seeking to position itself as leader of the Sunni Muslim world (although so too is Turkey), whereas Iran is the acknowledged leader of the Shi'a Islam realm.

The suggestion that Saudi Arabia could receive Pakistani nukes is not new. BMI wrote about this possibility back in October 2003, for example, during a previous period of such speculation. Nonetheless, any such deal would be a risky move for both nations. Although Saudi Arabia is an ally of several Western states, the latter would surely not want the Kingdom to 'go nuclear'. This would raise the possibility of Turkey, and perhaps even Egypt seeking to acquire atomic weapons arsenals.

Although this would not be threatening to the West per se, the nuclearisation of the Middle East would be viewed as dangerous, in case a period of heightened tensions leads to an unintended nuclear exchange. Israel would also be extremely nervous about regional nuclear proliferation, despite being the sole nuclear weapons state in the region, because its relations with most Middle Eastern states are poor. As for Pakistan, the country would surely come under further criticism from the USA.

Nevertheless, if Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were determined to arrange a nuclear weapons transfer, it is unclear whether the US has the means to prevent this. Washington-Riyadh relations have been under strain lately, and the Kingdom may have concluded that the US is an unreliable security guarantor over the long term. The Saudis are also nervous about a possible US-Iran rapprochement, which could reduce Saudi Arabia's geopolitical significance and leave it slightly marginalised. The Kingdom may also be speculating that rising US oil production will reduce Washington's desire to maintain the security of the Gulf region. Therefore, Saudi Arabia could well choose to ignore American pressure, potentially with the assumption that the Kingdom is too important (still) for Washington to alienate.

Meanwhile, US-Pakistan relations have long been under strain over the former's 'war on terror'. At various times, Islamabad has hinted that it could develop closer relations with China, if ties with Washington were to deteriorate further. If Pakistan were to provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons, it would surely be criticised heavily, and potentially be punished economically. Nevertheless, Islamabad could receive economic support from Riyadh and Beijing.

Overall, the US has proved powerless to prevent even impoverished and isolated North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, despite 20 years of efforts. Therefore, it is unclear if Washington can prevent Saudi Arabia from receiving ready-made nukes from Pakistan.