Why Pakistan Won't Sell Saudi the Bomb

A long-running and overhyped worry.

Much of the soul-searching since the Iraq War has focused on the intelligence failures that produced the faulty WMD assessment. Less attention has been paid to the more puzzling question of why so many people readily accepted the argument that Saddam would arm Al Qaeda with nuclear weapons, despite the obvious absurdity of the claim.

It is this latter question that also seems most relevant amidst new concerns about a Saudi nuclear weapon. Earlier this month, in the run-up to the Iran-P5+1 talks, the BBC’s Mark Urban wrote a lengthy piece claiming that Pakistan has built nuclear weapons “on behalf of Saudi Arabia [that] are now sitting ready for delivery.”

The article attracted considerable attention and alarm, although it’s not clear why. Concerns about a secret Saudi-Pakistani nuclear pact date back to the 1970s and 1980s, and have become especially prevalent over the past decade.

Nonetheless, despite decades of suspicions, the existence of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear pact is based almost entirely on speculation. Moreover, like the alleged Saddam-AQ nuclear nexus, the notion that Pakistan would supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons defies common sense.

As noted above, concerns about a Saud-Pakistan nuclear pact emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as Saudi aid to Pakistan increased rapidly. Many in Western foreign-policy circles feared that some of the Kingdom’s aid was being used to fund Pakistan’s nuclear program, with Riyadh expecting some of the final products in return.

However, the increase in Saudi aid during the 1980s was due to other factors, such as Pakistan basing some fifteen thousand troops in the Kingdom, and the Saudi government financing of over half of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. If Saudi money directly funded Pakistan’s nuclear program, it was almost certainly because, as a Saudi advisor once explained, “We gave money and [the Pakistanis] dealt with it as they saw fit.”

Similar Western speculation centers on Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz’s trip to Pakistan in 1999. During the trip, Pakistani prime minister Sharif gave Sultan a tour of the Khan Research Laboratories, which produce highly enriched uranium, and an adjacent ballistic missile factory. He was believed to be the first foreign dignitary to view the highly secretive, military-run KRL, although he denied being given access to the secret parts of the complex.

It’s not exactly clear why giving the Saudi defense minister a tour of the facilities would be necessary for the two sides to forge a nuclear pact, or even how it would advance it. Furthermore, if the tour was part of a covert nuclear deal, it seems unlikely the two sides would have publicized it. Instead, the highly publicized nature of the tour suggests it was intended to symbolize the closeness of the Saudi-Pakistani relationship.

The timing of the trip supports this view. Specifically, after India’s nuclear tests the year before, Riyadh empowered PM Sharif to respond with his own nuclear tests by assuring him the Kingdom would help offset the international sanctions that were almost certain to follow.

Beyond pure speculation, suspicions of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear pact also stem from the testimony of Mohammed Khilewi, the number two at the Saudi UN Mission until he defected in 1994. In seeking asylum in the U.S., Khilewi made a string of allegations to FBI agents, including that Saudi Arabia had a secret nuclear-weapons program and had helped fund Pakistan and Iraq’s nuclear programs. According to the UK Sunday Times, Khilewi claimed that in return for this funding, the two sides had signed a pact pledging that “if Saudi Arabia were attacked with nuclear weapons, Pakistan would respond against the aggressor with its own nuclear arsenal.”

The FBI agents who debriefed Khilewi did not put much stock into his claims. As his lawyer later complained, the two FBI agents “dismissed them as marginal and walked out of the meeting, refusing to take Khilewi into custody or give him protection.”

They were almost certainly right to do so. To begin with, Khilewi had a clear motivation for lying, given that his livelihood depended on being granted U.S. asylum. The U.S., however, had little reason to strain its alliance with Saudi Arabia on Khilewi’s account, unless of course he could be useful to U.S. interests.