Saudi Arabia recently announced its intention to launch its own nuclear program, saying it needs to diversify its energy sources. But a Saudi prince raised the possibility that the kingdom might develop nuclear weapons if Iran joins Israel as a nuclear weapons possessor.
Why no international uproar?
While Iranian officials, whether sincerely or not, insist that their nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy purposes, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal openly linked his country's nuclear energy and nuclear weapons interests.
If both Israel and Iran have nuclear weapons, "it is our duty toward our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons," Prince Turki, a former Saudi intelligence chief and U.S. ambassador, told a Persian Gulf security conference in Riyadh in December.
That same month, Saudi Minister of Commerce and Industry Abdullah Zainal told a U.S.-Saudi business conference in Atlanta that his country will spend $100 billion on building 16 nuclear power plants over the next few years to generate electricity.
On Jan. 13, Saudi Arabia announced it had signed an agreement with China for increased cooperation in development and use of atomic energy, including maintenance and development of nuclear power plants and research reactors, and manufacturing and supply of nuclear fuel elements.
"The pact with China is the fourth nuclear agreement signed by Saudi Arabia following similar deals with France, Argentina and South Korea," the Wall Street Journal reported.
Saudi Arabia has also been in discussions with the U.S., UK, Russia and the Czech Republic over more cooperation on nuclear energy, the Journal said.
This is not a new program. Saudi Arabia set up the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City, devoted to research and application of nuclear technology, in 2010.
Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are considered arch-rivals for regional dominance, their nuclear moves seem to have much in common.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia is said to be "struggling to keep up with rapidly rising power demand." According to the Reuters news agency, "The kingdom plans to turn to solar and eventually nuclear energy to reduce its need to burn fuel oil for electricity and preserve oil for lucrative export markets."
Iran, with the world's fourth biggest oil reserves, is undoubtedly facing the same issues.
They share other characteristics too.
Speaking of Saudi Arabia's nuclear program in terms that could well apply to Iran, Lebanese commentator Housam Matar writes, "the program is partly prompted by a perceived need to transform the established image of Saudi Arabia from a state with a reactionary and corrupt rentier regime ... to one of modernity, progress, and science."
Saudi Arabia's soft power in the region, "which is essentially based on sectarian proselytizing and pumping money," is in jeopardy, says Matar.
"Since the regime is not about to change the nature of its internal policies, it has opted to launch initiatives in other areas that do not threaten the regime's control over Saudi society.
"The Saudi regime pushed the idea of a nuclear program to the forefront as a key element in reconstituting Saudi soft power."
"The Saudi nuclear initiative therefore does not target Iran as much as it aims to reinforce the Saudi regime's internal legitimacy and strengthen popular cohesion around the Saudi leadership, which is plagued with uncertainty, behind-the-scenes rivalries, and political infirmity.
"The move also seeks to strengthen the kingdom's regional presence."
Much the same can be said about Iran.
Iran has its repressive theocracy and ties to armed militias in other countries. Saudi Arabia, a feudal monarchy, has been linked to similar activity, for example in Iraq. And it is home to the fanatically reactionary Salafi sect of Islam also known as Wahabbism, to which the Saudi monarchy is closely tied. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers came from Saudi Arabia, as did Osama bin-Laden. What if nuclear technology got into the hands of such elements?
Yet there has been barely a whisper in the U.S. media about Saudi Arabia's nuclear program. The State Department and European leaders appear to have been silent on the matter, even as they pursue an increasingly aggressive campaign over Iran's nuclear program, and even though President Obama has strongly advocated for nuclear non-proliferation. Republican warhawks have been silent on it too.
Meanwhile the Sidney (Australia) Morning Herald notes Saudi Arabia's close ties to nuclear-armed Pakistan:
"Throughout the 1980s and '90s, hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars were poured into Pakistan's efforts to build nuclear weapons, funding as much as 60 percent of the program.
"That money was given, it is widely believed, on an understanding that Pakistan would offer Saudi Arabia nuclear protection, or, at some future date, the chance to buy weapons or the technology to make them."
"Most analysts are convinced the Saudis will turn to Pakistan," the Morning Herald says. But it would have to be done covertly, since "Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the U.S., cannot be seen to be buying nuclear weapons from Pakistan, and Pakistan, already a nuclear pariah, cannot afford to be cast, again, as a proliferator of arms."
Photo: Stock image of a nuclear reactor. Michael Kappel // CC 2.0