Saudi King Salman, a month after acceding to the throne in Riyadh, has moved fast to shore up his reign with external props. In a reversal of the late King Abdullah’s policy, he has acted to restore close ties with Washington as insurance for the House of Saud’s survival, on the one hand, while, on the other, he has underscored the oil kingdom’s reliance on Pakistan’s military assistance for urgent contingencies of unforeseen perils.
The nuclear element figures prominently in the latter move.
A short time after Pakistan tested two nuclear weapons in 1999 Saudi Defense Minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta outside Islamabad.
The two governments entered into an unwritten agreement for Riyadh to fund large sections of Pakistan’s military nuclear program, in return for which Pakistan would make a nuclear weapon available to the oil kingdom if a strategic need arose.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have discussed this pact more than once in past issues, outlining the arrangements for its execution put in place by the Pakistani National Command Authority, which is in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal and air bases.
Pakistan offers Saudis both nuke and missile for its delivery
Not surprisingly, several alarm bells went off in Washington on Feb. 3, when the Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Rashad Mahmoud, landed in Riyadh for talks with King Salman and Saudi military and security chiefs.
For President Barack Obama, the revived Saudi-Pakistan nuclear connection might well jeopardize the almost complete accord with Iran. It could provide its opponents in Tehran with fodder for persuading supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to back away from an accord with Washington now that the Saudis have gained access anew to their own nuclear option.
Obama was further perturbed by the Gen. Mahmoud’s Riyadh visit coming a day after Pakistan announced the successful flight test of its Raad air-launched 22-mile range cruise missile, which is claimed to be able to deliver nuclear and conventional warheads with “pinpoint accuracy.”
This was seen as a strong message to Riyadh from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who spent years of exile in Saudi Arabia and is friendly with its royal rulers, that not only a weapon but a nuclear-capable Pakistani missile would be available to Riyadh for its delivery.
Salman acted with the same speed to unpick another of his predecessor’s commitments.
Saudis call off Russian arms deal with Egypt, fund French arms instead
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose that late last week, the king phoned Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi and informed him that, after consultations with Abud Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, it was decided that Saudi Arabia and the UAE would go back on their promise of two years ago to put up $3.2 billion for a major arms transaction between Egypt and Russia.
Cairo was to have received a large number of Russian MiG-29 fighter jets to replace the Egyptian Air Force’s American-made aircraft. To compensate Egypt for this loss, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were prepared to put up a larger sum for a bigger transaction with France, consisting of 24 Rafale jets, a Fremm naval frigate and MBDA air-to-air missiles worth a total of 5-6 billion euros ($5.65-6.78 billion).
Since a squadron of French fighter jets is based in Saudi Arabia and France maintains air and sea bases in the UAE, the arms deal would propel Egypt into integration in the French-Saudi-UAE defense alliance, while also requiring Cairo to adjust its policies to guidelines laid down by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
In this way, the new Saudi king also managed to block President Vladimir Putin’s bid to open up affluent Arab markets to the Russian arms industry.