Word of nuclear collaboration between Saudi and Pakistan has been going around for years. It has been consistently denied.
This week, there was a fresh report in the German magazine Cicero claiming that Saudi and Pakistani scientists have been working together since the mid-1990s on a nuclear power development program. The magazine added from “Western intelligence sources” that Saudi Arabia has established an underground city at Al Sulayel, south of Riyadh. Satellite images analyzed by Western intelligence agencies have determined that Al Sulayel contains dozens of underground silos for Pakistan’s intermediate-range Ghauri missiles.
Whereas Riyadh was slow to deny such reports in the past, this time, the Saudis rushed into action. One day after the Cicero publication, Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz and foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal each dealt with a different aspect of the report: Sultan denied any Saudi nuclear collaboration with Pakistan, while Saud gave the lie to the kingdom’s possession of a nuclear weapon.
Their promptness and the high rank of the deniers betokened Riyadh’s extreme sensitivity on the nuclear issue.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts and sources point out that neither denial went so far as to rule out a Saudi nuclear research program that includes uranium enrichment and development of a certain level of independent nuclear capability.
Our experts do not perceive the Saudis as aspiring to go all the way to building a nuclear bomb or missile warheads at this point. For now, what they are after is to avoid lagging behind their neighbors, especially Iran, in nuclear development. They are seeking to take a nuclear program up to one level before jump-starting their military option when Iran is proved to have the bomb.
The Saudis are not going overboard on a nuclear adventure, but they believe they cannot afford to be passive bystanders when in the past Iraq developed a military nuclear capability and today the Iranians are heading for that objective.
Keeping up with the militarized neighbors
Riyadh has always gone to considerable lengths to keep up with its neighbors’ acquisitions of advanced weaponry.
When the Iraq-Iran war erupted in the 1980s, a Saudi missile corps was set up and weapons purchased in America for deterrence, a course pursued ever since with an eye on Iran’s potential for making trouble.
Asked in 1998 how the oil kingdom would cope with an Iranian or Iraqi nuclear weapon, a senior Saudi prince responded laconically: “We’ll manage.”
His confident tone revealed that, already eight years ago, Saudi royals were fully alive to the Iranian nuclear threat and took out insurance to forestall it.
That same year, Riyadh purchased Chinese CSS2 missiles. The next year, 1989, to allay suspicions, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz proclaimed the kingdom’s adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides non-nuclear nations with a nuclear umbrella in return for abstaining from developing an independent option.
On October 21, 2003, Arnaud de Borchgrave reported in the Washington Times that Crown Prince Abdullah (who has since ascended the Saudi throne) in a 26-hour visit to Pakistan signed a secret nuclear collaboration treaty, which traded nuclear technology for cut-price oil.
The journalist, quoting a source whose credibility he described as having been proven for a decade, interpreted the accord as a promise by Pakistani ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf to let the Saudis have everything they required to develop a nuclear deterrent.
This week, Prince Sultan, proceeded both to deny his government’s nuclear collaboration with Islamabad, and to travel to Pakistan in the king’s footsteps to visit some of Pakistan’s nuclear installations and a uranium enrichment plant.
Various intelligence sources have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly in the past about ties going back years maintained by military leaders and businessmen close to the royal house with the father of the Pakistani bomb, the nuclear black marketeer Abdel Qader Khan.
Some cooperation is undeniable; the questions being what does it consist of, in what fields and has it gone beyond research to a working program for developing a military nuclear capability?
To meet its need for a deterrent in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat, Riyadh has two clear options:
1. To develop an independent nuclear capability with partners like Pakistan or China.
2. To rely on a nuclear umbrella spread over its head by the United States or Pakistan.
The Saudis may reasonably be supposed to have availed themselves of both.
In any case, Pakistan rather than the US would be the key Saudi choice – not only as a fellow Muslim-Sunni nation, but in view of the decades of military collaboration binding the two countries. Much of the Saudi armored corps was long manned by Pakistani officers who also piloted and maintained a good part of the Saudi air force. They never ran into local antagonism as did US forces during and after the 1991 Gulf War.
Is Saudi Ambassador Turki keeping the Americans stum?
Noticeable of late is the strong Asian slant characterizing Riyadh’s foreign policy orientation in contrast to the American bias of the last century, especially when King Fahd was on the throne. His successor, Abdullah’s first foreign tour this year as monarch took him to China and Pakistan; this week, Sultan goes around the Far East, touching down in Pakistan and Japan, which both princes made a point of visiting.
In Islamabad, the defense minister expects to tie up the ends of existing mutual accords in the military nuclear field or sign new deals in this field. The king, there a few weeks earlier, would have signed up Pakistan for sensitive nuclear assistance, but the defense minister would be involved more closely in the minutiae of Pakistani military aid and the development of an independent Saudi nuclear military option.
Washington’s public silence in the face of Saud Arabia’s apparent go-it-alone nuclear initiatives is the subject of much speculation. Some sources surmise that the Bush administration is deliberately holding back on the issue – whether for lack of detailed intelligence on the full scale of the Saudi effort, or a decision to turn a blind eye to these initiatives and Pakistan’s involvement.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources have learned that US policy-makers are fully abreast on what is going on in the desert kingdom and are holding their hand under the increasing influence of the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
The Bush administration has received up-to-date intelligence revealing that an advanced uranium enrichment project is progressing secretly at the Saudi industrial complex of Kharg, south of Riyadh. These reports belie the claim of an underground nuclear city at Al Sulayel, which is anyway nowhere near Riyadh but situated near the Saudi military city of Hamis Mushayet in the south.
Our sources confirm that Saudi ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal, brother of foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, has become a moving force in the forging of US foreign and Middle East policies.
His word in the right ears may have produced the Bush administration’s tacit acquiescence to the Saudi nuclear venture. The Saudi ambassador’s quiet hand is detected in setting out many of Washington’s latest steps with regard to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian question. His influence is marked in the current interchanges between the Saudi royal court and the White House.