Iran’s race towards a nuclear bomb is causing its Arab adversaries to contemplate building their own weapons, with Saudi Prince al-Faisal recently hinting that his country is considering the option. The Arab Spring has thrown a wildcard into the impending nuclear arms race, as it is uncertain who is coming to the forefront—and whose hands such capabilities will fall into.
In late June, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former chief of Saudi intelligence, told NATO officials that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons “would compel Saudi Arabia…to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.” Another official provided more specificity, saying “We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that.” Earlier this year, Prince al-Faisal said that the Gulf Cooperation Council must start “acquiring the nuclear might to face that of Iran.” The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Jordan and Morocco are set to become members as well, moving the GCC closer to a NATO-like alliance with the purpose of deterring Iran.
In 2008, King Abdullah privately told the U.S. that if Iran goes nuclear, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.” The Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates gave a similar warning in February 2009. The Saudis have been considering building nuclear capabilities for a long time. In 1999, a top member of the Saudi Royal Family visited a Pakistani uranium enrichment site, as did representatives from the United Arab Emirates separately. It has been long-rumored that the Saudis financed the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and provided discounted oil in exchange for a promise to be provided with weapons if requested.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, the Saudis already have the ability to kick-start a program independently. “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,” the organization says. This year, the Saudis bought nuclear-capable missiles from China and began a $300 billion program to build 16 reactors within 20 years. However, some reports indicate that the Saudis lack the nuclear expertise and constructing a weapon could take up to two decades.
The future of Saudi Arabia, however, is very unclear. The Arab Spring has yet to manifest itself in Saudi Arabia in a dramatic fashion, but discontent is simmering. The Royal Family is stuck between the liberal, reform-minded youth and the Wahhabist extremists. The government has embarked on an incredible spending binge to cope with the pressure. King Abdullah is 88 years old and his successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is 83 years old and is thought to have cancer. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh was reporting as early as May 2009 that he “has been incapacitated by illness for at least (the) past year.” The next in line is Prince Nayef, a foe of the reformists who has been an ally of the Wahhabists.
Prince Nayef promotes 9⁄11 conspiracy theories, claiming that “Al-Qaeda is backed by Israel and Zionism.” Senator Chuck Schumer demanded his removal in 2003 for his involvement in financing terrorism and Islamic extremism. However, Nayef has ridiculed Saudi imams for not fighting Islamic extremism enough, and said “All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood.” Still, former CIA case officer Robert Baer and Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism separately told FrontPage in December that Nayef is likely to promote Islamic extremism and reduce counter-terrorism cooperation with the U.S. Schwarz also warned of “serious social upheaval” in Saudi Arabia if Nayef takes the helm.
Nayef’s ascent and the inevitable clash between reformists and Wahhabists makes a potential Saudi nuke even more concerning. In addition, the country has armed forces trained and equipped by the U.S. A sale of $60 billion worth of arms was agreed upon in October 2010, the largest deal of its kind ever.
There is also a strong possibility that whoever comes to power in Egypt will also begin a nuclear weapons program. The previous regime privately told the U.S. that it may start a weapons program to protect itself from Iran. If Egypt remains an enemy of Iran, then this option will remain on the table. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, it is quite possibly it will also see nuclear weapons as a necessity.
In 2006, the Muslim Brotherhood openly said Egypt must acquire nukes in response to Israel’s arsenal. “We are ready to starve in order to own a nuclear weapon that will represent a real deterrent and will be decisive in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” its parliamentary spokesman said. The former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, said in 2008 that Iran “is entitled to have a nuclear bomb.” In November 2010, Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi was asked if Muslims should build nukes “to terrorize their enemies,” and he answered affirmatively, adding that he was “happy” when Pakistan built them.
In a region where today’s ally can be quickly replaced by tomorrow’s enemy, the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities carries extraordinary risks. Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not just about Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, but all the leaders who will follow in their footsteps.