The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi shed light on the reckless and dangerous decisionmaking process of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS). In addition to the latest crisis The New York Times recently published a story about how the prince’s closest security personnel sought to hire private foreign companies to assassinate senior Iranian officials—an act that could have trigger a regional military conflict. This conduct follows a string of other bizarre events in the last few months, initiated by MbS.
The crown prince has demonstrated arrogant, cruel, amateur and capricious behavior. His aggression has been left almost unmonitored by checks and balances inside the Saudi hierarchy. Indeed, MbS has constrained all his potential rivals and has taken full control of Saudi Arabia’s security and intelligence bodies. As the Khashoggi scandal has proven—such power enables dictators to secretly execute dangerous operations. In parallel, he managed to become the darling of the West after he initiated economic reforms and launched his so called modern 2030 vision.
Now add Saudi’s long history of nuclear ambitions to the mix. For years, Saudi officials have warned that Saudi Arabia will not curb its nuclear ambitions if it will sense a threat to its national security, or if Iran advances in its nuclear program. Rumors were that Pakistan was obliged to provide the Saudis a ready-for-use nuclear weapon if and when the time comes. Things only got more complicated once the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with Iran was signed in 2015, practically legitimizing Iran’s rights to maintain and develop its uranium enrichment capabilities. At the beginning of November 2018, the crown prince participated in the opening ceremony marking the launch of construction of Riyadh’s first research reactor. It’s still early days and only a symbolic act—the Saudis lack knowhow, technicians, infrastructure and academic expertise—but the country has both enough ambition and funds to advance anyway. Shortly after that the Saudi energy minister said the kingdom launches uranium exploration program.
Over the last decade, purchasing sixteen nuclear power reactors—later scaled back to two reactors—plus uranium enrichment capabilities preferably from the United States, has featured prominently on the Saudi agenda. The official rationale is the country’s future needs to supply energy—with self-sufficient nuclear materials. While having enrichment capabilities can serve to counterbalance Iran, it may also constitute a future military nuclear program. During previous negotiations with Saudi officials, the Obama administration insisted that Saudi Arabia must comply with the “gold standard,” reflective of the conditions imposed on the UAE when it agreed to buy U.S. reactors in 2009. This standard requires a commitment not to enrich uranium or to produce plutonium as a strict condition for any agreement to sell nuclear reactors. According to current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration has maintained this policy. In an interview with CBS in March 2018, MbS maintained that “without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible.”
Following the murder of Khashoggi, Senate members urged the Trump administration to curb any intention to sell nuclear reactors to the Saudi regime. This move is certainly necessary, but not nearly enough. An American refusal to his demands can push the prince to seek an alternative option elsewhere, with producers that will be all too happy to assist—for the right price.
Much of MbS’s current conduct lies parallel to previous experience with three other Middle East tyrants: former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Libya’s leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. These cynical dictators have a common denominator in their infinite ambitions, which ultimately led them to secretly promote a nuclear weapons program. They all relied heavily on their security systems in initiating these plans. Libya and Syria had no sufficient nuclear infrastructure, so they bought a turnkey nuclear project from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan Network, and in the Syrian case from North Korea.
The Saudi nuclear issue has placed a challenge before the administration. If the prince is successful in surviving the current crisis, then that could prompt him to make even riskier decisions, including taking the nuclear path. Much like in Iraq, Libya and Syria, all the necessary components for that are now in place: A de facto dictator with delusions of grandeur and poor judgment, full control over the security services, unlimited funds for the purpose, a national sense of isolation, an acute threat, and a long-term nuclear vision. As Iran seems to be complying with the JCPOA, a Saudi move could instigate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. To avoid this, the Trump administration should warn and restrict the Saudi heir. It should also keep a very close eye on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear connections and activities.
Ronen Dangoor is the former deputy head of the research and analysis division at the Israeli prime minister’s office.