Wouldn’t it be totally awesome if the Saudis went nuclear?

No, it wouldn’t. It would be terrifying. But that wouldn’t happen.

Where terror and the bomb could meet

By Amir Mir

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s June 25-26 unscheduled trip to Saudi Arabia has raised many an eyebrow in Islamabad’s diplomatic circles, where it is believed the visit was meant to seek the assistance of the kingdom to circumvent the ongoing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into reports that the Saudis might have purchased nuclear technology from Pakistan. The speculation goes that Musharraf aimed to chalk out a joint strategy on what stance the two leaders should adopt to satisfy the IAEA and address its concerns.

Saudi Arabia is under increasing pressure to open its nuclear facilities for inspection as the IAEA suspects that its nuclear program has reached a level (with Pakistani cooperation) where it should attract international attention. The pressure has also come from Europe and the United States, which want Riyadh to permit unhindered access to its nuclear facilities.

Well before the IAEA probe began, the US had been investigating whether or not the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold nuclear technology to the Saudis and other Arab countries. Acting under extreme pressure from the IAEA, the Saudi government signed the Small Quantities Protocol on June 16, which makes inspections less problematic. However, the US, European Union and Australia want it to agree to full inspections. The Saudi stand is that they will agree to the demand only if other countries do so, including Israel.

International apprehensions that Saudi Arabia would seek to acquire nuclear weapons have arisen periodically over the past decade. The kingdom’s geopolitical situation gives it strong reasons to consider acquiring nuclear weapons: the volatile security environment in the Middle East; the growing number of states (particularly Iran and Israel) with weapons of mass destruction; and its ambition to dominate the region. International concerns intensified in 2003 in the wake of revelations about Khan’s proliferation activities. The IAEA investigations show that Khan sold or offered nuclear weapons technology to Saudi Arabia and several Middle Eastern states, including Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Last year’s unearthing of the black market nuclear technology network increased international suspicions that Khan had developed ties with Riyadh, which has the capability to pay for all kinds of nuclear-related services. Even before the revelations about Khan’s activities, concerns about Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation persisted, largely due to strengthened cooperation between the two countries. In particular, frequent high-level visits of Saudi and Pakistani officials over the past several years raised serious questions about the possibility of clandestine Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation.

In May 1999, a Saudi Arabian defense team, headed by Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, visited Pakistan’s highly restricted uranium enrichment and missile assembly factory. The prince toured the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and an adjacent factory where the Ghauri missile is assembled with then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and was briefed by Khan. A few months later, Khan traveled to Saudi Arabia (in November 1999) ostensibly to attend a symposium on “Information Sources on the Islamic World”. The same month, Dr Saleh al-Athel of the Science and Technology ministry, visited Pakistan to work out details for cooperation in the fields of engineering, electronics and computer science.

Interestingly, Saudi defector Mohammed Khilevi, who was first secretary of the Saudi mission to the United Nations until July 1994, testified before the IAEA that Riyadh had sought a bomb since 1975. In late June 1994, Khilevi abandoned his UN post to join the opposition. After his defection, Khilevi distributed more than 10,000 documents he obtained from the Saudi Arabian Embassy. These documents show that between 1985 and 1990, the Saudi government paid up to US$5 billion to Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear weapon. Khilevi further alleged that Saudis had provided financial contributions to the Pakistani nuclear program, and had signed a secret agreement that obligated Islamabad to respond against an aggressor with its nuclear arsenal if Saudi Arabia was attacked with nuclear weapons.

In 2003, Musharraf paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, and former Pakistani premier Zafarullah Khan Jamali visited the kingdom twice. But the US had warned Pakistan for the first time in December 2003 against providing nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia. Concerns over possible Pakistani-Saudi nuclear cooperation intensified after the October 22-23, 2003, visit of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, to Pakistan. The pro-US Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan, who is next in line to succeed to the throne after Abdullah, was not part of the delegation. During that visit, American intelligence circles allege, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia concluded a secret agreement on nuclear cooperation that was meant to provide the Saudis with nuclear-weapons technology in exchange for cheap oil.

However, in 2005, the US claims to have acquired fresh evidence that suggests a broader government-to-government Pakistani-Saudi atomic collaboration that could be continuing. According to well-placed diplomatic sources, chartered Saudi C-130 Hercules transporters made scores of trips between the Dhahran military base and several Pakistani cities, including Lahore and Karachi, between October 2003 and October 2004, and thereafter, considerable contacts were reported between Pakistani and Saudi nuclear scientists. Between October 2004 and January 2005, under cover of the hajj (pilgrimage), several Pakistani scientists allegedly visited Riyadh, and remained “missing” from their designated hotels for 15 to 20 days.

The closeness between Islamabad and Riyadh has been phenomenal and it is not without significance that the first foreign tour of Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in October 1999, was to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Sharif himself, his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif and their families live in Saudi Arabia after a secret exile deal between Musharraf and Sharif, in which Riyadh had played a key role. During Sharif’s prime ministerial tenure, the Americans believe, Saudi Arabia had been involved in funding Islamabad’s missile and nuclear program purchases from China, as a result of which Pakistan became a nuclear weapon-producing and proliferating state. There are also apprehensions that Riyadh was buying nuclear capability from China through a proxy state, with Pakistan serving as the cut-out.

Following Khan’s first admission of proliferation to Iran, Libya and North Korea in January 2004, the Saudi authorities pulled out more than 80 ambassador-rank and senior diplomats from its missions around the world, mainly in Europe and Asia. The pullout is widely thought to have been meant to plug any likely leak of the Pakistani-Saudi nuclear link.

Before September 11, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan were the only countries that recognized and aided Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which had been educated in Pakistan’s religious schools (madrassas). Despite the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the Saudis continue to fund these seminaries that are a substitute for Pakistan’s non-existent national education system and largely produce Wahhabi extremists and Islamist terrorists. Also, a substantial proportion of their curricula, including the sections which preach hatred, has also emerged from Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan, with a crushing defense burden, only spends 1.7% of gross domestic product on education (compared to 4.3% in India and 5% in the United States). An estimated 15,000 religious schools provide free room and board to some 700,000 Pakistani boys (ages six to 16) where they are taught to read and write in Urdu and Arabic and recite the Holy Koran by heart. No other disciplines are taught, but students are indoctrinated with anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Indian propaganda, and encouraged to engage in jihad to defeat a “global conspiracy to destroy Islam”. These schools supplied thousands of recruits for the Taliban militia in Afghanistan and are still being used to recruit militants to fight the US-led forces and Afghan troops in that country.

While Saudi Arabia actively uses charities to promote Wahhabi extremism across the world, Pakistan has been the recipient of huge direct economic assistance from the desert kingdom. The Saudis have bailed out Islamabad over the past decade by supplying Pakistan with an estimated $1.2 billion of oil products annually, virtually free of cost. Just after the visit of Khan to Saudi Arabia in November 1999, a Saudi nuclear expert, Dr Al Arfaj, stated in Riyadh that “Saudi Arabia must make plans aimed at making a quick response to face the possibilities of nuclear warfare agents being used against the Saudi population, cities or armed forces”.

Following the departure of American troops from its soil, the biggest problem for the Saudi Kingdom is how to deal with such nuclear contingencies. 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, might be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, apparently by purchase rather than indigenous development. The 2,700-kilometer range CSS-2 missiles the kingdom obtained from China in 1987 are useless if fitted only with conventional warheads. One cannot, therefore, avoid the inference that, like the Pakistan-North Korean “nukes for missiles deal”, Khan might have struck an “oil for nukes” deal with Saudi Arabia on behalf of Islamabad at a time when there was a growing homogeneity of strong pan-Islamic affiliations worldwide. If Khan’s interaction with the scientists of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya were similar to those during his reported visits to North Korea, norms of the non-proliferation regimes can be expected to have been more brazenly violated.

While the aspirations of a few Islamic countries to acquire nuclear weapons are wedded to the idea of the “Islamic bomb”, al-Qaeda’s quest for components and know-how relating to weapons of mass destruction reflect on the potential rise of nuclear terror throughout the world. The role of wealthy and politically connected Saudi Arabian families in secretly funding al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror organizations has, until now, been kept deliberately in the background by Washington, largely out of sensitivity to the precarious internal situation in Saudi Arabia itself.

King Fahd is near death, and his designated successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, is known to be more actively hostile to American foreign policy, and more sympathetic to militant Wahhabi Sunni currents in the Islamic world. Washington knows well that a head-on clash with the Saudi royal house at present would serve the interests only of the radical faction inside the Royal family. A major strategic goal of al-Qaeda’s terror attacks within Saudi Arabia in recent years has been to escalate pressure on what are regarded as Westernized corrupt elements of the Saudi royal house, with the aim of replacing them with fanatical feudal Wahhabi elements – a kind of Talibanization of the Saudi Kingdom.

The internal Saudi situation is complicated by the fact that many powerful Saudi families financially support the al-Qaeda effort as part of a strategy to purge the kingdom of “infidels and Western corruption”. In many cases these influential Saudis reach into the extended royal family, including the murky figure of the former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki al-Faisal, son of the late King Faisal. The Americans had accused Turki’s Faisal Islamic Bank of involvement in running accounts for bin Laden and his associates.

Turki himself maintained ongoing ties with bin Laden even after the latter fled Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s, after imprisonment by order of the king. Considered close to both bin Laden as well as Khan, it was Turki who had persuaded King Fahd to grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. The possibility of Turki having played a role in a nuclear deal between bin Laden and Khan cannot, consequently, be ruled out, especially when many members of the Pakistani military and nuclear establishments have been found involved in holding meetings with the al-Qaeda leader.

The first indications of the presence of pro-jihadi scientists in Pakistan’s nuclear establishment came to notice during the US-led allied forces’ military operations in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, when documents recovered by troops reportedly spoke of the visits of Pakistani nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, to Kandahar when bin Laden was operating from there before September 11. Bashiruddin was the first head of the Kahuta uranium enrichment project before Khan, who replaced Bashiruddin in the 1970s.

Subsequent investigations carried out by American intelligence discovered that bin Laden had contacted these scientists for assistance in making a small nuclear device. On February 12, 2004, Khan appeared on Pakistan’s state-run television after holding a lengthy meeting with Musharraf and confessed to having been “solely responsible” for operating an international black market in nuclear-weapon materials. The next day, on television again, Musharraf, who claimed to be shocked by Khan’s misdeeds, nonetheless pardoned him, citing his service to Pakistan (he called Khan “my hero”).

For two decades, the Western media and their intelligence agencies have linked Khan and the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence to nuclear-technology transfers, and it was hard to credit the idea that the successive governments Khan served had been oblivious of these activities. In the post-September 11 period, analysts continue to express fears about the possibility of extremist Islamic groups like al-Qaeda gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or fissile or radioactive materials. Secret deals with Saudi Arabia can only aggravate such risks and concerns.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist affiliated with the Karachi-based monthly, Newsline.

(Published with permission from the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal )

The entire story is behind the cut, or you can just read it here if the url hasn’t gone away. From the Asia Times, via Harry Shearer in the Huffington Post.

One thought on “Wouldn’t it be totally awesome if the Saudis went nuclear?

  1. The problem with technology is the degree to which it empowers single individuals or small groups to disrupt society on a larger and larger scale. There’s a reason why “mad scientists” are iconic villains, after all.
    It’s only a matter of time until some stupid fuck manages to wipe out the human race, I expect. Supervirus, nanotechnology, whatever. As long as the trend keeps increasing…

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