The decision to release these statements comes at time when Saudi Arabia feels as though the strategic ground is collapsing around them. They perceive their chief enemy, Iran, to be gaining at their expense. In the past year they have suffered a series of tremendous blows to their position in the region. In Egypt they lost a major ally with the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and the new government quickly moved to re-establish relations with Iran. To the south in Yemen, the disintegration of the Saleh regime threatens to spread disorder to Saudi territory and signals the loss of another allied regime. This is compounded by the rise of a democratic Shia-majority Iraq to their north, and the uprising in Bahrain; which to Saudi Arabia has shades of Iranian involvement. It is no wonder that Saudi Arabia is desperate to try and realign the scales, and dropping the prospect of a Saudi bomb is certainly one way to do so.
By indicating that Saudi Arabia might pursue a nuclear weapons program to match an Iranian bomb, the Saudis clearly intend to refocus Western attention and change the current narrative on the Middle East. For a few months the Arab Spring has diverted the focus from Iran, instead shining the light on US and Western allies. Calling for nuclear parity with Iran not only shifts attention to the Iranian nuclear weapons program but raises the specter of nuclear proliferation in the region. Not only is this an effective strategy; it is an old one. Saudi Arabia has leaked statements or policy papers on a possible nuclear weapons program consistently since 2003 as a way to prod the West into action.
However, the threat is empty; the likelihood that Saudi Arabia will pursue an active nuclear weapons program is incredibly minute. First of all, what the Kingdom stands to gain from pursuing such a program should be considered. It is almost a certainty that an Iranian nuclear weapon would result in a US nuclear umbrella for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. This would be in addition to copious increases in conventional military arms sales and the stationing of more US assets in the region to secure the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of a weapons program risks alienating all of their major Western allies and pushing away their much cherished security guarantee. Finally, the sheer scale of development needed for such a program must be considered. Even for a wealthy state such as Saudi Arabia the challenges are daunting. Saudi Arabia has only just begun to create a nuclear energy program, with the first reactors not yet even online. The jump from the conceptual planning of nuclear power plants to the actual development of a weapons program is huge and would likely consume hundreds of billions of dollars and years of development.
But while the possibility seems incredibly slim, perhaps there is utility in allowing the Saudi bluff to remain unmasked. Because the Iranian nuclear weapons program is emphatically not a bluff. While the Arab Spring has raised important issues that will rock the region for years to come; the Iranian problem will not disappear and shouldn’t be lost in the tumult.
Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst with IGA.