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Will Riyadh Get the Bomb?

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As the impasse over Tehran’s nuclear program worsens, those most likely to be directly effected by an Iranian bomb are showing greater alarm.

While the media fixates on Israel and its possible reaction, other regional players have no less at stake.

Despite Riyadh’s long-held advocacy of making the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, there has been much speculation in the last two decades about the possibility of its acquiring or developing nuclear weapons should Tehran obtain the bomb.[1] In the words of King Abdullah: “If Iran developed nuclear weapons … everyone in the region would do the same,”[2] a sentiment echoed by Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate.[3] Has Riyadh decided to go down the nuclear road, or is this bluster a desperate bid to stop Tehran’s nuclear program dead in its tracks?

Why Go Nuclear?

A major deterioration in U.S.-Saudi relations—especially if Washington fails to stop Tehran’s nuclear program or decides to scale back its military presence in the Middle East due to its recent energy discoveries—could force Riyadh to reconsider nuclear weapon acquisition to avoid having to face foreign aggression without U.S. security assurances. However, the relationship between Riyadh and Washington has thus far provided the Saudis with an unprecedented level of protection. From Washington’s perspective, conventional wisdom holds that U.S. security commitments can keep Iran in check, prevent U.S. allies in the Middle East from submitting to Tehran’s demands, and dissuade them from pursuing nuclear weapons. Yet both the willingness and the ability of the U.S. government to defend its partners in the region against a nuclear-armed Iran have been questioned.[4] As an Israeli observer argued recently:

The lack of American will to confront the ayatollahs and stop them in their tracks has given various Arab leaders plenty of incentive, as well as a good excuse, to proceed down the nuclear trail … If the Iranians aren’t stopped, and soon, we may wake up a few years from now to discover that Saudi Arabia and other unfriendly regimes have decided to upgrade their “civilian” nuclear programs into weapons-making industries.[5]

Additionally, the Saudis are increasingly nervous about the strength of any U.S. commitment in light of the Obama administration’s abandonment of such a long-standing regional ally as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.[6]

The second issue is a mirror image of the first, namely, the concern over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In February 2012, one senior Saudi source told the London Times:

There is no intention currently to pursue a unilateral military nuclear programme but the dynamics will change immediately if the Iranians develop their own nuclear capability … Politically, it would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the kingdom.[7]

Abdulaziz Sager, head of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, argues that the consequences of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons would result in

turning Iran into a hegemonic power over the [Persian Gulf] states of the region, through its control of Iraq, its holding fast to the continued occupation of the UAE’s [United Arab Emirates] islands, and its intervention in the domestic affairs of countries in the region through the agitated Shiite groups in these countries, which could push the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], namely Saudi Arabia, to seek, in turn, the acquisition of a nuclear weapon to confront Iran.[8]

Riyadh is most concerned about Iran’s ambitions especially because it and many other Gulf states have substantial Shiite populations that could potentially become radicalized were a nuclear-empowered Iran to step up its incitement.[9] Many analysts argue that in the event of an Iranian nuclear breakout, Riyadh would feel compelled to build or acquire its own nuclear arsenal. Given Saudi Arabia’s vast wealth and strategic weakness, such a decision might seem logical.[10] Riyadh’s perception of the Iranian threat as serious and immediate was recently expressed by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal:

Sanctions are a long-term solution … But we are looking at an Iranian nuclear program within a shorter term because we are closer to the locus of the threat. We are interested in immediate rather than in gradual solutions.[11]

Diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks reveal that King Abdullah privately warned Washington in 2008 that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would do the same.[12]

A third factor in the Saudi calculus is Israel’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.[13] Given Israel’s status as an assumed but undeclared nuclear weapons state, the most immediate consequence of Tehran’s crossing the nuclear threshold would be the emergence of an unstable bipolar nuclear competition in the Middle East.[14] Were Israel to end this ambiguity and admit its possession of nuclear weapons, this might provide a form of deterrence against Iran, which in turn will increase the pressure on Riyadh to acquire its own deterrent vis-à-vis both countries.[15]

Finally, domestic factors must be taken into account. So far, King Abdullah and even Crown Prince Salman favor the continuation of military cooperation with the United States, but the two suffer from old age and poor health, and a change at the top of the pyramid could have a decisive impact on this issue. However, there has long been speculation that the royal family is divided over the nuclear issue. Former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal favors a secret nuclear program for military uses in cooperation with Pakistan and is supported in this by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, director of the Saudi intelligence agency and former ambassador to the United States. In contrast to the hawks in Riyadh, there is also a group, headed by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, which opposes establishing a secret nuclear military program reliant on Pakistan and prefers to be defended against Iran under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.[16]

Consumption and Constraints

Perhaps a more critical factor in the nuclear equation is Saudi Arabia’s economic outlook. The country depends almost exclusively on oil export revenues to develop its economy. Jareer Elass and Amy Myers Jaffe of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University contend that

It is in the Kingdom’s long-term geopolitical and security interests to maintain its leadership role in the global oil arena. Riyadh’s ability to threaten other oil producers that it could flood the oil market is a critical aspect buttressing its leadership role inside OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] and gives the country regional clout as well. Saudi Arabia’s ability to single-handedly alter the price of oil gives the Kingdom significant geopolitical power, and it has used its ability to lower the price of oil to its geopolitical advantage on many occasions over the decades. With this oil superpower stature comes much of the global influence that Saudi Arabia enjoys on the international stage.[17]

But the kingdom is an oil-consumer as well as a producer. Burning oil for electricity production currently consumes about a quarter of the crude oil Saudi Arabia produces, which could have very serious implications for the future.[18] In 2011, Saudi Arabia consumed an average of 2.87 million barrels per day (mb/d).[19] The country needs to find at least another 20 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity by 2020 to add to its existing 40 GW if it is to meet projected demand.[20] As the GCC’s largest economy, Saudi Arabia has more reason than most to turn to nuclear power.

According to analysts at Riyadh-based Jadwa Investment, oil demand in the kingdom rose by 22 percent between 2007 and 2010, outpacing China’s oil demand growth rate despite the latter’s economy expanding almost three times as fast.[21] While official data shows Saudi oil consumption rising by more than 5 percent a year in 2003-10 to an average of 2.4 mb/d in 2010,[22] analysts at British Petroleum put it at 2.85 mb/d in 2011,[23] (see Tables 1 and 2) making Saudi Arabia the world’s sixth-largest oil consumer. On a per capita basis, its oil consumption is sky-high;[24] its consumption in 2011 is set to jump by 5.6 percent, way above the global average of 1.4 percent.[25]

Some economists argue that if Saudi Arabia’s energy consumption continues at its current rate, within twenty years the kingdom will burn the equivalent of almost all its recent daily output—more than 8 mb/d —or around two-thirds its total production capacity.[26] Citigroup goes further to say that Riyadh could be an oil importer by 2030. Oil and its derivatives account for 50 percent of Saudi electricity production, mostly for residential use. According to Citigroup analysis, if nothing changes, the Saudis may have no available oil for export by 2030.[27] The head of Saudi Aramco has admitted that unless internal demand is controlled, the amount of oil left for export could fall to less than 7 mb/d by 2028.[28] Jadwa Investment paints an even bleaker picture, declaring that the kingdom could face a serious revenue crisis within the current decade, forced to cut exports to meet rising demand. By 2020, it expects exports available for the global market to fall to less than 5 mb/d.[29]

(Table 1): Saudi Oil Production Demand (2001-2011 million barrels per day)

 

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

Production

9,15

8,87

10,10

10,56

11,03

10,77

10,37

10,76

9,80

9,95

11,16

Consumption

1,62

1,66

1,78

1,91

1,97

2,04

2,16

2,33

2,55

2,74

2,85

Source: Adapted from BP Statistical Review of World Energy, (June 2012), pp. 8-9.

Given rising spending needs, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated the break-even oil price for Saudi crude in 2011 to be US$80 a barrel, a rise of US$30 a barrel from three years ago; this would increase to US$98 by 2016.[30] The Washington-based Institute of International Finance suggested that Saudi Arabia will need at least US$110 for oil by 2015 to balance its budget.[31] But even these figures look conservative; the sheer scale of the kingdom’s spending commitments now necessitates a substantially higher oil price.[32]

It is within this context that Riyadh’s recently declared intention to launch its own nuclear program makes sense. In December 2011, Abdullah Zainal, minister of commerce and industry, announced that the equivalent of US$100 billion would be spent on building sixteen nuclear power plants to generate electricity in different parts of the kingdom.[33] Riyadh has signed nuclear technology agreements with several states for research reactors and nuclear power plants. Abdullah M. al-Shehri, governor of the Electricity and Co-Generation Regulatory Authority (ECRA), recently outlined Saudi Arabia’s road map in building its nuclear capabilities for peaceful means:

First, we need to secure international cooperation; second, come up with long-term planning; third, study the required safety measures mandated by the international community; fourth, ensure we have the needed fuel supply; and fifth, we must prepare a national work force that is educated in nuclear engineering and operation.[34]

Such projects would, however, enable the Saudis to enrich uranium. With the aid of their Sunni allies in Pakistan, they could then obtain knowledge of bomb-making capabilities and the relevant technologies.[35]

Saudi nuclear ambitions crystallized in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen summit when it was realized that global efforts to control climate change could end up punishing countries that put off including non-carbon-based energy sources in their power portfolios.[36] According to the World Trade Organization, the Saudi economy is increasingly dependent on international trade: The ratio of merchandise and services trade (exports and imports) to gross domestic product (GDP) rose from 88.7 percent in 2005 to a peak of 104.9 percent in 2008 and reached 97.4 percent in 2010. Riyadh’s export base is highly concentrated in fuels (petroleum and gas). The share of fuels in total merchandise exports depends largely on the evolution of world oil prices and Riyadh’s quota production within OPEC. In value terms, the share of fuels in total merchandise exports (including re-exports) went from 89.5 percent in 2005 to 85.7 percent in 2010.[37]

(Table 2): Saudi Break Even Oil Forecast at Current Spending Patterns

 

2005

2010

2015F

2020F

2025F

2030F

Oil Indicators (million barrels per day)

Oil Production

9.4

8.2

9.3

10

10.7

11.5

Oil Exports

7.5

5.8

6.3

6

5.6

4.9

Domestic Consumption

1.9

2.4

3.1

3.9

5.1

6.5

Breakeven Oil Price (US$ per barrel)

Saudi Export Crude

30.3

71.6

90.7

118.5

175.1

321.7

Source: Adapted from Brad Bourland and Paul Gamble, “Saudi Arabia’s coming oil and fiscal challenge,” (Jadwa Investment, Riyadh), July 2011, p. 24. F= forecast

Third Party Connections

There have been suggestions that, rather than develop an indigenous nuclear program, Saudi Arabia would simply seek to buy nuclear warheads from Pakistan or China. According to a news media report, Riyadh is beefing up its military links with Islamabad to counter Tehran’s expansionist plans either by acquiring atomic weapons from Islamabad or a pledge of nuclear cover,[38] a claim also reported earlier in The Guardian.[39]

Alternatively, Pakistan might offer a deterrent guarantee by deploying its own nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and troops on Saudi territory. This arrangement could be particularly appealing to both Riyadh and Islamabad, allowing the Saudis to argue that they are not violating the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) since the weapons would not be theirs. A Pakistani presence might also be preferable to a U.S. one because stationing Muslim forces on Saudi soil would not trigger the kind of opposition that has in the past accompanied the deployment of “infidel” U.S. troops.[40]

Despite these rumors, the Pakistanis know as well as anyone that the principal threats to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia are domestic against which nuclear weapons have no value but rather might stir up more trouble than they alleviate. But, a good Pakistani working relationship with Washington is essential. The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 (also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill) authorized a massive increase in U.S. civilian assistance to Islamabad, tripling it to US$1.5 billion a year.[41] In spite of tensions between the two states, Pakistan remains keen on developing its relationship with Washington, and continued proliferation of nuclear technology is unlikely to encourage either economic or military aid.[42] Indeed, selling complete nuclear weapons would come at great political cost. Islamabad might forfeit U.S. foreign assistance and drive Washington into closer cooperation with its mortal enemy India.[43]

Providing Riyadh with a Pakistani nuclear umbrella would also increase the likelihood of convergence between New Delhi and Tehran as both nations might view the move as part of a larger Sunni threat. In addition, Saudi nuclear acquisition could prompt a preventive strike by Israel—especially if the sale became known before the weapon was activated. Finally, although relations with Islamabad are improving, the House of Saud has no great trust in Pakistan’s intentions; on the contrary, many of the WikiLeaks documents revealed Saudi dissatisfaction with Pakistani politicians and policies.[44]

In theory, the Saudis could pursue a nuclear option with the Chinese, but in the current strategic environment, it is hard to imagine this as a realistic scenario. Beijing and Riyadh have never had close military relations largely because Washington has provided the Saudis with advanced military equipment as well as security assurances against international threats that China cannot provide. While Beijing and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, including the severity of the Iranian threat, it is unlikely that Beijing would jeopardize its trade and other relations with Washington by supplying the Saudis with nuclear weapons.

Additionally, China is a member of the NPT system and thus obliged “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any nonnuclear weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”[45] Under the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994, Beijing would face revocation of the U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement it worked so hard to secure, as well as the possible imposition of economic sanctions, if it were deemed to have “aided or abetted” the acquisition of nuclear weapons.[46]

If U.S.-Saudi relations should falter, the Chinese would doubtless view it as an opportunity to take a more active role in Saudi affairs. However, there is no evidence suggesting that this relationship will sour in the near future; in fact, as shall be seen, it is clearly improving.

Domestic Constraints

Technical barriers for entry into the nuclear club are high, and it is difficult for states to completely hide a clandestine military program from foreign intelligence observers. For example, the West successfully (albeit belatedly) detected Tehran’s secret uranium enrichment facility constructed in tunnels under a mountain near Qom.[47] Indeed, many analysts believe that Riyadh’s talk about developing nuclear arms may be more intended to focus Western attention on its concerns about regional risks than to indicate any kind of definitive action to go nuclear.[48]

It is unlikely that the Saudis would want to proliferate at the present time; doing so would deeply strain the U.S.-Saudi relationship, perhaps to an irrevocable degree.[49] Doing so would also place Riyadh in breach of a memorandum of understanding signed with Washington in 2008, promising U.S. assistance with civilian nuclear power on condition that Riyadh not pursue “sensitive nuclear technologies.”[50] Riyadh’s desire to maintain a strong relationship with Washington, especially in light of the royal family’s desire to prevent unconventional terrorism within its borders, inhibits any strong appetite to develop nuclear weapons.[51]

There is also strong evidence that Washington is committed to defending Saudi Arabia. President Obama notified Congress on October 20, 2010, of the largest ever arms sales to Riyadh, including the proposed sale of fighter aircraft and upgrades to existing Saudi fighter aircraft, attack and utility helicopters, and related weaponry and services. If all options are exercised, the proposed sales may be worth more than $60 billion dollars over a period of ten to fifteen years.[52] The Saudis will also get help with training, logistics, and maintenance. The Obama administration hopes the sales will help “sustain long-term relationships to ensure continued U.S. influence for decades,”[53] or as the Economist put it:

the package of sales would not only tilt the balance of conventional weaponry in the Gulf decisively against Iran, whose suspected bid to acquire atomic bombs frightens its Gulf neighbors as well as Israel and the West. It would signal the return to normal of America’s tight, 70-year-long alliance with Saudi Arabia. This had frayed following the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked American cities on September 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals. Fearing congressional opposition, Saudi Arabia had in recent years sought weaponry from other sources.[54]

Riyadh will also feel more secure from Tehran’s missile capabilities once it acquires the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. This system is intended for shooting down short-, medium-, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase, using a “hit-to-kill” approach. At the same time, a potential $30 billion upgrade of the Saudi navy would greatly strengthen the latter’s power projection in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Ultimately, the U.S. arms package will increase Riyadh’s confidence and capabilities in countering Tehran’s rising power in the Middle East.[55]

Further, the character of the Saudi establishment militates against taking the drastic step of nuclear proliferation; the House of Saud is simply too conservative to undertake such a bold and controversial step. As Thomas Lippman argued,

The Saudis’ weapons of choice are cash and diplomacy. It is difficult to imagine the princes of the House of Saud deliberately positioning themselves as global outliers and inviting reprisal from countries capable of inflicting serious damage on them.[56]

Journalist Richard Nield has noted that Riyadh has committed itself to a major industrialization and economic diversification campaign that will require sustained engagement with the rest of the world. “It’s not rational that they would jeopardise this in favour of a preemptive strike against the theoretical possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.”[57] The same idea is echoed by Kate Amlin, who believes that Saudi leaders would not want to incur the political and economic backlash resulting from pursuit of a nuclear arsenal at a time when they are trying to integrate further into the international economy.[58]

Finally, it would take many years and considerable financial cost for Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. There exists a relatively strong consensus regarding the immature state of the Saudi nuclear technology infrastructure. The country lacks the human expertise and technical knowledge necessary to develop a nuclear weapons program on its own.[59] It does not operate nuclear power facilities, and its scientists do not have the necessary experience to enrich uranium for reactor fuel, to convert nuclear fuel, or operate nuclear reactors.[60] A recent Citigroup report warns that several complex issues are likely to result in delays to Saudi Arabia’s target nuclear power launch of 2019:[61] the lack of available nuclear power experts; cost overruns or high capital costs, and above all, plant safety risks such as keeping plants cool in desert conditions since there is no history of successful execution in such conditions.[62] According to Citigroup, the “safest location for a nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia is deep in the desert between Riyadh and Jeddah. Water would have to be piped over 30 miles to this region and under conditions that keep the pipes and plants cool.”[63]

There have, however, been clear signs recently of the Saudis’ intent to enter the nuclear arena. In June 2010, the kingdom commissioned Finnish management consultancy Poyry to offer a strategy for nuclear and renewable energy use and to study the economic and technical feasibility of becoming involved in all aspects of the nuclear power chain, including uranium enrichment.[64] Earlier that year, the Saudi government said it planned to build a new technology centre, the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energies, in Riyadh.[65] Despite this, it will be years before it is developed. In a 2007 visit to Saudi Arabia, Mohammed ElBaradei, then-director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, estimated that the Saudi nuclear civilian plan might take up to fifteen years.[66]

Conclusion

Given that it is the world’s top oil exporter, handling a nuclear Saudi Arabia would be a delicate manner. But, at least for now, the Saudis have no alternative but to rely on a U.S. defense umbrella. Still, it would be contrary to Riyadh’s practice to put all its eggs in one basket. Thus, the kingdom will work in two parallel routes, strengthening its military, particularly the air force and navy, and aggressively seeking to buy the civilian nuclear technology that will in the future provide the technical capacity and human resources for dealing with nuclear weapons.

Riyadh is currently linked to arms deals with Washington for at least the next decade. It could also take a decade to develop the potential human and technical resources needed for a civilian nuclear program. At present there is no solid evidence that Riyadh has taken firm steps to go down this route, nor is there any evidence of Saudi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction

Overall, though not insurmountable, the obstacles to Saudi nuclearization are considerable. Much depends on Tehran’s ambitions and the West’s determination to stymie them.

Naser al-Tamimi is a U.K.-based Middle East analyst with research interest in energy politics and Middle East-Asia relations. He holds a PhD degree in International Relations from Durham University, U.K.

[1] Robert Shuey and Shirley A. Kan, “Chinese Missile and Nuclear Proliferation: Issues for Congress,” U.S. Congressional Research Service, Nov. 16 , 1995; The New York Times, July 10, 1999; The Guardian (London), Sept. 18, 2003; The Washington Times, Oct. 21, 2003; Dan Blumenthal. “Providing Arms: China and the Middle East,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, pp. 11-9; Cicero (Hamburg), Mar. 28, 2006; Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), May 30, 2012.
[2] The Guardian, June 29, 2011.
[3] Reuters, Dec. 6, 2011.
[4] Eric S. Edelman, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., and Evan Braden Montgomery, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran,” Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2011, pp. 66-81.
[5] Michael Freund, “When Saudi Arabia Goes Nuclear,” The Jerusalem Post, Apr. 29, 2010.
[6] The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011.
[7] The Times (London), Feb. 10, 2012.
[8] Abdulaziz Sager, “Alwady’a fi al-khaleej: Derasa Isteshrafeya 2025,” paper presented to the Manama (Bahrain) Development Forum, Feb. 8-9, 2008, in al-Wasat News (Bahrain), Feb. 13, 2008.
[9] “Saudi Arabia Defense and Security Report Q1,” Business Monitor International (London), Jan. 2011, p. 55.
[10] Thomas W. Lippman, “Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy,” Middle East Institute, Policy Brief, no. 5, Jan. 2008.
[11] Associated Press, Feb. 15, 2010.
[12] The Guardian, June, 29, 2011.
[13]Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East,” Report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., Feb. 2008.
[14] Edelman, Krepinevich, and Montgomery, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran,” pp. 66-81.
[15] Kathleen J. McInnis, “Extended Deterrence: The U.S. Credibility Gap in the Middle East,” The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2005, pp. 169-86.
[16] Ha’aretz, Sept. 8, 2011.
[17] Jareer Elass and Amy Myers Jaffe, “Iraqi Oil Potential and Implications for Global Oil Markets and OPEC Politics,” James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, July 2011.
[18] Mark Hibbs, “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” Carnegie Endowment, Washington, D.C., July 20, 2010.
[19] “Oil Market Report,” International Energy Agency, Paris, Nov. 13, 2012.
[20] Petroleum Economist (London), Dec. 14, 2010.
[21] Brad Bourland and Paul Gamble, “Saudi Arabia’s Coming Oil and Fiscal Challenge,” Jadwa Investment, Riyadh, July 2011.
[22] Reuters, Oct. 12, 2011.
[23] “BP Statistical Review of World Energy Report,” British Petroleum, London, June 2012, p. 9.
[24] Bourland and Gamble, “Saudi Arabia’s coming oil and fiscal challenge.”
[25] Financial Times (London), Feb. 28 2011.
[26] The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011.
[27] Heidy Rehman, “Saudi Petrochemicals: The End of the Magic Porridge Pot?” Citigroup, London, Sept. 2012, p. 1.
[28] Reuters, Oct. 12, 2011.
[29] Bourland and Gamble, “Saudi Arabia’s Coming Oil and Fiscal Challenge.”
[30] “Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia,” International Monetary Fund, Washington, D.C., Sept. 2011, p. 22.
[31] Elass and Jaffe, “Iraqi Oil Potential.”
[32] Middle East Economic Digest (MEED, Dubai and London), Dec. 23, 2011.
[33] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Feb. 9, 2012.
[34] Saudi Gazette (Riyadh), Feb. 22, 2012.
[35] The Daily Mail (London), Feb. 24, 2012.
[36] Saurav Jha, “China’s ‘Third Island’ Strategy,” World Politics Review, Jan. 6, 2010.
[37] “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Trade Policy Review, World Trade Organization, Geneva, Dec. 21, 2011.
[38] United Press International, Sept. 15, 2011.
[39] The Guardian, May 11, 2010.
[40] Edelman, Krepinevich, and Montgomery, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran,” pp. 90-1.
[41] Alexander Evans, “Pakistan and the Shadow of 9/11,” RUSI Journal, Aug./Sept. 2011, pp. 64-70.
[42] “Saudi Arabia Defense and Security Report Q4,” Business Monitor International, Jan. 2012, p. 66.
[43] James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, “After Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and Its Complications,” Foreign Affairs, Mar./Apr. 2010, pp. 33-49.
[44] See, for example, Associated Press, Dec. 3, 2010.
[45] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, New York, July 1, 1968, art. I.
[46] Lippman, “Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy.”
[47] Ian Jackson, “Nuclear Energy and Proliferation Risks: Myths and Realities in the Persian Gulf,” International Affairs, Nov. 2009, p. 1157.
[48] The Guardian, June 29, 2011.
[49] Sammy Salama and Gina Cabrera Farraj, “Secretary General of Arab League urges Arab countries to exploit nuclear power, enter ‘nuclear club'” WMD Insights, May 2006.
[50] The Times, Feb. 10, 2012.
[51] Kate Amlin, “Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?” James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2008.
[52] “The Middle East: Selected Key Issues and Options for the 112th Congress,” U.S. Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., report R41556, Jan. 3, 2011, p. 6.
[53] The New York Times, Dec. 29, 2011.
[54] The Economist (London), Sept. 15, 2010.
[55] Business Monitor International, Sept. 14, 2010.
[56] Lippman, “Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy.”
[57] MEED, Dec. 17, 2010.
[58] Amlin, “Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?”
[59]Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East,” Report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., Feb. 2008.
[60] Yana Feldman, “Saudi Arabia Country Profile: Nuclear Facilities Profiles,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, July 2004.
[61] Rehman, “Saudi Petrochemicals: The End of the Magic Porridge Pot?” p. 36.
[62] Ibid, p. 35.
[63] Ibid.
[64] “Saudi Arabia: Going Nuclear,” Country Monitor, Economist Intelligence Unit, London, June 7, 2010.
[65] Petroleum Economist, Dec. 14, 2010.
[66] The New York Times, Apr. 15, 2007.

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Middle East

Elections in Syria: Forgetting Old Resentments?

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In the presidential elections on May 26, Bashar al-Assad won more than 95% of the votes. According to the current constitution, this term will be the last for the president. But in the next seven years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the constitution may change, and it is far from certain that this will happen as a result of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, with UN mediation. The victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accompanied by congratulations from allies and a lack of recognition of the election results by Western countries. In any event, what is the attitude towards this war-torn country and its ruling elites in the Arab world? Will Bashar al-Assad be able to rebuild the country and deliver it from chaos?

Forgetting old resentments. From balance of power to balance of interests

Through regional recognition lies the path to global recognition. It is necessary in some form for the reconstruction of Syria, the cost of which is estimated at more than $250 billion. Syria’s allies do not have such funds, and the West links the provision of funds for the country’s reconstruction with conditions for a political settlement of the conflict, which the current authorities will not agree to. In the absence of economic reconstruction, however, there is a threat of the re-activation of the defeated terrorists. In this context, the role of the rich oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf—the most promising source of money—becomes especially significant.

Syria is traditionally called the “heart” of the Arab world. This, nevertheless, did not prevent other Arab countries from responding to the unfolding violence in Syria by freezing its membership in an important regional structure, the Arab League, in 2011. Speaking about the return of Syria to the Arab League, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Arab diplomacy is very, very famous for its effectiveness, so it seems to me that here we can expect that the issue will be resolved, and, I hope, quite quickly.” However, there are a number of factors that can support this process, and constraints that can hinder it.

The conversation about the return of Syria to the Arab League has been going on for several years—since it became clear that Bashar al-Assad will be able to keep power in his hands. This became obvious to regional and global players with the defeat of terrorists and opposition, with the active support of the Syrian leadership from Iran and Russia. In addition, compared to 2011, the situation has changed in the Arab League itself. In Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, the secular regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who has roots in the military), is now in power, and not the anti-Assad-minded Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation). A number of Arab League member states like Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have never been against Syria, and now actively advocate its return to the organisation. The Gulf monarchies have gone through a decade of reassessing challenges and threats.

Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have led to the strengthening of the regional rivals of the Arab states of the Gulf—Turkey and Iran. The expansion of these major regional powers is forcing the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to seek new approaches. In the context of Syria, this means the Arab rejection of the Turkish occupation of Syrian (and, therefore, Arab) land in northern Syria. At the same time, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are thinking about whether it is worth it to push Syria into the hands of Iran, if they can try to return it to the “Arab homeland” and balance the Iranian influence on Damascus. The UAE, Bahrain and Oman have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, but so far Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two key countries that oppose Syria in the Arab League, are in no hurry to do the same. In any event, the Saudis are increasingly inclined towards a partial return of relations. It is clear from some of their actions. For example, we are talking about the restoration of ties between Bahrain and Damascus, since the policy of Bahrain is a litmus test of Riyadh’s aspirations. In early May, there were reports about the visit of the head of the general intelligence service of Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, to Damascus. In late May, for the first time in 10 years, a Syrian delegation led by Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini made an official visit to Riyadh to participate in the work of the World Tourism Organisation Committee for the Middle East.

The results of the presidential elections in Syria once again remind the Arab states that they will have to work with Bashar al-Assad and his government.

Obviously, Damascus is ready to forget old grievances. Among other things, Arab nationalist rhetoric is extremely important for the ruling Baath Party. On the eve of the elections, Assad’s adviser Busseina Shaaban said: “Efforts are being made to improve relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and in the coming days we can witness results in this matter.” If Riyadh changes its position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, there will be only one Arab country opposing this—Qatar. Qatar’s non-Arab ally in the recently weakened regional confrontation is Turkey, which will also hinder this and continues to declare the need of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. True, this is less and less possible, although the opinion of Turkey, which has more than 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees, is something to be reckoned with.

Veni, vidi, vici?

At the global level, Russia and the United States have different positions. Russia’s foreign policy advocates sovereignty, the return of Syria to the Arab League and its early restoration. But even if Syria returns to the League, it will not solve the economic problems of the country, where corruption is rampant, the currency continues to depreciate, there is barely enough electricity and fuel for the population to survive, and 80% of citizens remain below the poverty line. In addition, the Syrian economy will not receive serious injections, even from the Gulf countries, due to the policies and sanctions of the United States, which remains the hegemon in the region. However, it is precisely the regional recognition of Damascus that is extremely useful and can be considered as a step towards further stabilisation.

Even before the elections in Syria, the Americans, together with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, issued a joint statement about their illegitimacy. The sanctions adopted by the US Congress against Syria under the name “Caesar Act” are “secondary” in nature, which means that any third country doing business with the Syrian government is included in the US sanctions list. Companies from the UAE have already faced this problem, and potentially sanctions deprive Syria of any major projects with the Gulf States in the future. This issue is unsolvable at the regional level. Much depends on how the Americans are committed to the implementation of the sanctions regime.

An excessive US appetite for sanctions may hurt the interests of its regional allies, which will displease the latter (and not always tacitly).

At the moment, however, to quote the journalists of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, we observe “the absence of American leadership”: the United States is not engaged in promoting any active campaign to counter the normalisation of relations between Syria and other members of the international community. The previous pattern with regard to Syria remains—with the illegal presence of the American military in the east of the country, support for Kurdish groups, and the illegal use of Syrian resources.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has not yet formed a new course towards Syria, since this issue is not a priority for it. In these conditions, regional and interested global players have the opportunity to correct their positions, build up links with previously inaccessible actors, and make attempts to go beyond the existing restrictions.

Bashar al-Assad sent a message to the whole world that he is ready for a new stage. The world is no longer what it was a decade ago. At the regional level, the Arabs are thinking about accepting the existing reality, but at the global level, the Syria issue is not a priority. In his victory speech, al-Assad noted that the Syrian people “returned to the true meaning of the revolution” after it was “blotted by mercenaries”. It is obvious that Damascus persistently and patiently stands on its ground. Arabs say that patience is the key to joy. The only question is whose joy it is.

From our partner RIAC

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The syndrome of neglect: After years of hyperactivity, Erdogan is completely isolated

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At the NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, strategically important issues were discussed, such as the relations of the Alliance’s Member States with China and their attitude towards President Putin’s Russia. The Member States’ positions on these issues did not appear unambiguous and diplomats had to struggle to find the right wording to draft the final communiqué. What was evident, however, was an only apparently marginal fact: the total “physical” as well as political isolation of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.

After being defined by Prime Minister Draghi as a “dictator and autocrat”, the Turkish President also had to endure the harsh reprimands of the US State Department which, at the end of the “eleven-day war” between Israel and Hamas, did not hesitate to condemn – in unusually harsh language – some of his public statements made in the first days of the war when, in order to underline his thoughts towards the Israeli leadership, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “the Jewish Prime Minister”.

The derogatory use of the word “Jewish’ instead of “Israeli” triggered a reaction from President Biden’s Administration. The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was instructed to express “the strong and unequivocal condemnation of the Turkish President’s anti-Semitic comments’, and called on him to refrain from “incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence … not least because anti-Semitism is reprehensible and should have no place on the world stage”.

After struggling for years to become a true regional power, President Erdogan’s Turkey is now on the sidelines of the political scene and the Turkish leader’s bewildered expression emerging from the photographs of the NATO Summit of June 14 – which show him physically isolated from the other Heads of State and government – appears as an iconic testimony to the irrelevance to which Turkey has been condemned, owing to the adventurism of its President, after a decade of reckless and counterproductive political and military moves.

As early as in the spring of 2010, in view of showing he was at the forefront in supporting the Palestinian cause, President Erdogan authorised the establishment of the “Freedom Flotilla”, a naval convoy capable of challenging – under the Turkish flag – the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On May 31, 2020, Israeli commandos intercepted the Mavi Marmara ship carrying not only humanitarian aid, but also Hamas militants attempting to enter again the Gaza Strip illegally.

As soon as Israeli soldiers stepped onto the deck of the Turkish ship, they were confronted by Palestinians and crew members armed with axes, knives and iron bars. Ten Palestinians and Turkish sailors died in the ensuing clashes, but the most severe wound was inflicted on Turkish-Israeli relations.

Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Israel – long-standing relations dating back to 1949 when Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, thus also interrupting important economic and military relations that represented for the entire Middle East the example of how it was possible to follow paths of integration and pacification between Muslims and Jews.

Since 2011, with the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Springs”, President Erdogan has tried in every way to take a leading role in a flow of events which – rather than exporting liberal democracies in the region – aimed to underline and validate the victory of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and of the most backward and fundamentalist Islam.

While thinking he could easily solve his competition with Assad’ Syria and at the same time dismiss the problem of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish irredentism, President Erdogan intervened heavily in the Syrian civil war by providing military aid and logistical support not only to the militias of the “Syria Liberation Army”, but also to the Salafist formations of Jabhat Al Nusra and even ISIS.

We all know what has happened: after a decade of civil war, Syria is in ruins but Bashar al-Assad is still in power; the rebels are now closed in small pockets of resistance and Russia, which intervened siding with Damascus, thus overturning the outcome of the conflict, is firmly established in the country while Turkey is not only excluded from the promising business of Syria’s reconstruction, but finds itself managing a massive refugee emergency.

In President Erdogan’ sometimes ill-considered quest to make his country take on the role of the leading regional power, his activism led him to intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in support of the Azerbaijani Turkmen against the Christian Armenians, with the result that, after the last crisis in the autumn of 2020, Turkey had to step aside to leave Russia the role of interposition and peacekeeping force.

In Libya, too – after sending arms and mercenaries to support al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) – after its resignation last January, the Turkish role became less influential than the Turkish leader’s aspirations.

In 2017, in a vain attempt to send a signal to NATO and US allies, President Erdogan bought S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, worth 2.5 million dollars.

The move did not please the then US President, Donald Trump, who immediately imposed economic and military sanctions on Turkey, thus contributing to the decline of its economy and to its progressive international isolation.

It has recently been reported that, in an attempt to bring Turkey closer to the new Biden Administration, President Erdogan has decided to send back home the Russian technicians who were in charge of S-400 maintenance at the Incirlick base – which is also a NATO base – with the result of infuriating Vladimir Putin who obviously does not like the idea of seeing highly sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Americans.

The end result of all these unhinged moves is that the US sanctions remain in place while the Russians can only regret having trusted an unreliable leader.

On the domestic front, too, despite the repression that followed the failed coup d’état of 2016, things are not going well.

The deep economic crisis, resulting from excessive military spending, poor administrative capacity and rampant corruption, as well as the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, makes the situation even more difficult for the Turkish President and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), which have ruled the country continuously since 2002.

The recent local elections, in which the AKP was defeated, and the election polls indicate that, despite the tactical alliance between President Erdogan’s party and the ultra-nationalist National Movement, a success for the President and his party in the 2023 general and Presidential elections seems far from certain.

What makes President Erdogan’s sleep even more restless is certainly the ‘Peker scandal’ that has been hitting the headlines of all Turkish newspapers and social media over the last few days.

Sedat Peker, a businessman formerly affiliated with the extreme right-wing organisation of the “Grey Wolves” (the same one to which Ali Agca, known for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, belonged) has long been a supporter of Tayyp Recep Erdogan and is known to have been one of the main suppliers of weapons to jihadist groups involved in the Syrian civil war.

Last April, after being accused of corruption and criminal conspiracy, he went into self-exile, first in Montenegro and then in the United Arab Emirates, from where he has been conducting a relentless campaign against President Erdogan and his party on charges of corruption and other crimes and offences.

Under the interested supervision of Mohamed Dalhan, the former Head of the Palestinian intelligence service in the Gaza strip, exiled to the Emirates after the break with Hamas, Sedat Peker daily floods social media with accusations against the Turkish President’s “magic circle”, starting with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and his ally Mehemet Agar, former Police Chief, who in Peker’s opinion are responsible not only for corruption, but also for extortion, drug trafficking and murder.

Despite government-imposed censorship, these sensational accusations dominate the political debate in Turkey.

Mohammed Dalhan, the Palestinian secret agent, helps Sedat Peker both out of a spirit of revenge against Hamas and, hence, against its Turkish supporter, and because the Abu Dhabi government, for which he now works, has not favourably viewed Turkey’s attempts to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and moderate Arab countries and the explicit support offered by President Erdogan to Hamas during the recent “eleven-day war”. Moreover, the latter ended thanks to Egypt’s mediation – a diplomatic success for the moderate Arab front that pushes Turkey and its leader ever further to the sidelines, as they – observant Sunnis – are now forced to move closer to the heretical Shiites of Iran, the only ones who now seem to give credit to President Erdogan, who is now like a bad student relegated to a corner of the classroom, from which he will find it difficult to escape without a clear change of course towards a more moderate approach in domestic policy and a rapprochement to the West in foreign policy.

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Iranian Election Portends Increased Human Rights Abuses, Demands Western Response

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When the Iranian regime holds its presidential election this Friday, it is likely to experience the lowest level of voter turnout in its 42-year history. This has been acknowledged by certain Iranian officials and state media outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, which include the lingering effects of three anti-regime uprisings, public resentment over authorities’ crackdowns on those uprisings, a lack of serious competition among the candidates, and the brutal legacy of the clear frontrunner.

All but the last of these factors were already apparent in February of last year, when Iranian regime held elections for various governors and members of parliament. Those elections are the ones to beat if the country is to set a new record for low turnout this week. Moreover, if persistently anti-democratic conditions aren’t enough to yield that outcome on their own, public antipathy toward Ebrahim Raisi might just be the thing that pushes the electoral boycott over the top.

For months now, Raisi has been recognized as a person favored by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the next President. But that preference specifically stems from Raisi’s unwavering loyalty to the supreme leader and his willingness to flout the security and wellbeing of ordinary Iranians in order to safeguard the future of the theocratic dictatorship. In 2019, Raisi was appointed to head the nation’s judiciary, and his penchant for political violence was put to the test by the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in November 2019 – a follow-up to similar protests in January 2018.

The regime’s response to the latter uprising constituted one of the worst singular crackdowns on dissent since the early years of the Iranian regime. As head of the judiciary, Raisi played a leading role in that crackdown, particularly the systematic torture of political prisoners that was detailed in a September 2020 report by Amnesty International. That report was closely accompanied by the emergence of new evidence supporting the tally of protest-related killings provided by the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

The MEK, which has long been recognized as the leading voice for Iranian democracy, quickly determined that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had killed 1,500 people in mass shooting incidents over just several days coinciding with the November 2019 uprising. Over time, the MEK has also released the names of more than half of the victims, naturally starting with those who were members of the organisation or were otherwise closely connected to it.

Details of the crackdown serve to underscore the notion that it was largely an attack on the MEK, which Khamenei had acknowledged as a driving force behind the initial uprising in early 2018. The supreme leader referenced months of planning by dissidents in order to explain the popular embrace of slogans calling for “death to the dictator” and condemning both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of mainstream politics inside the regime. This messaging was tantamount to a call for regime change – the expressed platform of the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

In recent weeks, MEK-affiliated activist collectives known as “Resistance Units” have been using precisely this platform to promote the concept of an all-encompassing electoral boycott. In April alone, those activists erected posters, painted graffiti, and held demonstrations in more than 250 localities across the Islamic Republic, urging citizens to “vote for regime change” by avoiding the polls and denying any semblance of legitimacy to the ruling system. Since then, the call to action has been echoed by various other groups, including pensioners and blue-collar workers whose frustration with the regime has greatly intensified in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by self-serving government policies and blatant corruption.

Protests by these and other demographics have lately come to feature slogans like, “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.” The implication is that Iranians from all walks of life are not only rejecting the current election but also the entire underlying system, in favour of a platform akin to that which is being promoted by the MEK and the NCRI. The details of that platform are clarified for an international audience each year at a rally of Iranian expatriates and political supporters which invariably features eager endorsement of the “10-point plan” for a democratic Iranian republic that was authored roughly 15 years ago by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.

The plan calls for free and fair elections as well as secular pluralism, and it expresses a commitment to international laws and principles of human rights. By contrast, the existing regime has repeatedly rejected those laws and principles through such recurring actions as its execution of juvenile offenders, its routine usage of torture and forced confessions, and its explicit insistence upon exception from human rights standards that are deemed to conflict with the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam.

Despite all of these, Tehran’s contempt for human rights has arguably never been more blatant than is now, in the run-up to Raisi’s appointment as the regime’s next president. His role in the crackdowns following the November 2019 are certainly one reason for this, but the main source of Raisi’s infamy remains his participation in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Those killings arguably constitute the late 20th century’s single worst crime against humanity, and as one of four figures in Tehran’s “death commission” at the time, Raisi bears as much responsibility as anybody for the roughly 30,000 hangings that were carried out over just several months.

In commenting on the election, the NCRI has made it clear that Raisi was chosen to run a more-or-less uncontested campaign precisely because of this legacy. Specifically, the NCRI argues that Khamenei witnessed the Resistance movement gaining momentum and resolved to consolidate power in the hands of those most comfortable with political violence. But in so doing, the supreme leader gave Iranians even more incentive to protest the political process than they had had in February 2020. Thus, when Raisi takes office, he will immediately be faced with the challenge of compensating for an electoral boycott that effectively deprive the regime of any claim to political legitimacy.

The consequences of that challenge will surely depend, in part, on the role that the international community chooses to take on in the midst of forthcoming conflicts between the Iranian regime and a population that is showing ever-greater support for an organised resistance. If major world powers elect to stand on the sidelines, it could give the Raisi administration license to assume office and then immediately initiate human rights abuses rivaling those of November 2019, or possibly approaching those of summer 1988. However, if those powers recognize this danger and instead elect to intervene on the Iranian people’s behalf, then they may find they have ample opportunities to do so.

Relevant strategies will be presented by NCRI officials and the political supporters, including European and American lawmakers and academics with diverse party affiliations, when they take part in the coalition’s World Summit on a Free Iran between July 10 and 12.

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