For a long time, when the Saudis talked about a "nuclear free zone" in the Middle East, it was understood they meant that Israel should be forced to admit it had a nuclear weapons capability and then be disarmed.
These days, though, while some of the language still sounds the same, as in the following statement from the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, the real fear involves Iran far more than it does Israel.
Citing Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal, the embassy statement of November 7, 2013 emphasized that
Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has signed a comprehensive safegurards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and has consistently supported the establishment of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East.
What apparently prompted this statement from the Saudis was a BBC report of the previous day that laid out in fairly stark language the prospects for nuclear proliferation in Saudi Arabia. Mark Urban, the BBC's diplomatic and defense editor, wrote that
Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will …
According to the same BBC report, a month earlier, in October 2013, Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran were allowed to go nuclear,
…the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb; they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of talks in Geneva over Iran's nuclear weapons program. While talks broke off on November 9 with no agreement, they are scheduled to resume on November 20.
At issue is the Iranian ability to achieve nuclear breakout and construct a bomb—and efforts by the so-called P-5 + 1 powers (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—France, Russia, UK, U.S., plus Germany) to forestall that eventuality.
A new report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) on October 24, 2013 estimated that Iran might need as little as one month to enrich enough uranium to the Weapons Grade level needed to make one nuclear weapon.
Most analysts watching the current highly unstable security situation in the Middle East expect that once Iran demonstrates a nuclear weapons status, whatever remaining hold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) may have over regional signatories (which include Iran and Saudi Arabia but not Israel) will disintegrate.
The intra-Islamic sectarian struggle between Shi'ite and Sunni forces playing out most savagely in Iraq and Syria would enter an ominous new phase, with Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and perhaps others moving openly to seek a nuclear weapons capability of their own.
Word that the Saudis were talking to the Pakistanis about nukes began circulating at least a decade ago. Washington Times journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave reported in 2003 about a secret agreement reached between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to provide the Saudis with nuclear weapons technology in return for cheap oil.
According to de Borchgrave, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal (who's held that position since 1975) was one of an entourage of 200 who accompanied Crown Prince Abdullah bin Azziz (now King) on an October 2003 state visit to Islamabad to conclude the pact.
Even then, observers attributed the Saudi initiative to concern about the Iranians' nuclear weapons program, which had been outed for the first time by the Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the year before.
In a 2011 report, de Borchgrave cited Prince Faisal al-Turki, former head of Saudi intelligence as well as a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., who warned that the Saudis were considering a nuclear option of their own:
If our efforts, and the efforts of the world community, fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons, we must as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves.
De Borchgrave added that Saudi discussions with the Pakistanis already had moved in that direction in 2006, when Saudi King Abdullah flew into Islamabad to talk about the sale of several nuclear warheads to the Kingdom. According to de Borchgrave, the Saudis were even then "skeptical about U.S. power and the direction of its foreign policy."
By 2013, the erosion of U.S. resolve to stand by its traditional regional allies coupled with a demonstrated willingness to provide material support (financing, intelligence, a NATO bombing campaign and weapons) instead to jihadist groups like al-Qa'eda and the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and Libya to Syria was ringing alarm bells across the region.
From the Saudi perspective, the Obama administration's haste to pull support from Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, favoritism towards the jihadist Brotherhood, withdrawal of military aid after the July 2013 coup by the Egyptian generals, failure to mount a military strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and finally, Obama's naïve outreach to Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, and readiness to offer deep concessions in nuclear negotiations, all spelled disaster.
Such deepening concerns about U.S. reliability as an ally and about Iran's advancing capabilities reportedly are what lie behind the surprising Saudi decision in October 2013 to turn down a much-coveted seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), for which it had lobbied long and hard.
As Jed Babbin noted in his trenchant October 28, 2013 piece at American Spectator, "Soured Saudis Sulk Out," given the Saudis' decades-long support for jihadist operations both stealthy and violent against the U.S., it's a bit of a stretch to consider them allies at all, but their attention-grabbing declaration about distancing their foreign policy from the U.S. still is testament to a drastically diminished American ability to project power and influence or shape events in the region.
It's also worth considering Babbin's suggestion that the Saudis may not have wanted to be placed in a position to vote on a future UNSC resolution against Iran. The Saudi fear of Iranian retaliation, absent U.S. support, is palpable.
As during much of Islamic history, the Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry currently again defines Middle East dynamics and has turned the entire region into a tinderbox. Despite the overwhelming numerical advantage that Sunnis enjoy over their Shi'ite sectarian cousins (about 85% to 15% globally) and the House of Saud's control over the key Muslim centers in Mecca and Medina, should their ancient Shi'ite Persian enemies achieve nuclear weapons status, that would be a game changer. The balance of power in the Persian Gulf would shift away from the Saudis, and smaller sheikhdoms could and probably would begin to make accommodations to the new strong horse. The fact that both Saudis and Iranians have, at times, supported the same Islamic terrorists (such as al-Qaeda) only adds another layer of complexity to an already tenuous situation.
It is difficult to overstate the danger of events spinning out of control in the absence of the traditional U.S. leadership role, for so long a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Uncertainty about U.S. intentions—towards erstwhile allies like Egypt, Israel and the Saudi Kingdom as well as towards its apparent new friends among al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian mullahs—has many in the region and well beyond on edge.
Moves by frightened regional actors to arrange for their own defense are strongly likely to include nuclear proliferation that won't be limited to the Saudis, but could very well include other powers such as Egypt and Turkey. Destabilization across a broad swath of the Middle East would reverberate far beyond the region with detrimental consequences for U.S. and international security alike.