Why Pakistan Won't Sell Saudi the Bomb

November 18, 2013 Topic: Security Region: PakistanSaudi Arabia

Why Pakistan Won't Sell Saudi the Bomb

A long-running and overhyped worry.


Another flaw that almost all the news accounts share is that they analyze the pact solely from the perspective of Saudi Arabia, and ignore Pakistan’s interests almost entirely. They note, for example, that the Kingdom fears a nuclear-armed Iran and point out that Saudi officials have regularly threatened to go nuclear if Iran isn’t prevented from building the bomb. Although one can imagine some reasons the Saudis might not want Pakistani bombs, particularly if they were under the command of Pakistani soldiers, it’s not altogether difficult to believe Riyadh would accept a readymade nuclear deterrent.

But it’s downright preposterous to think that Pakistan would take the unprecedented step of selling Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons, given that it would have nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so.


To begin with, Pakistani officials are exceptionally paranoid about the size of their nuclear arsenal, and take extraordinary measures to reduce its vulnerability to an Indian or U.S. first strike. Providing the Saudis with their nuclear deterrent would significantly increase Islamabad’s vulnerability to such a first strike. It defies logic to think that Islamabad would accept this risk simply to uphold promises former Pakistani leaders might have made.

It is similarly hard to imagine that past Saudi economic assistance could purchase future nuclear weapons. After all, the U.S. has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars to fight terrorism since 9/11, and it found bin Laden living in an off-campus mansion outside Pakistan’s military academy. The Saudis have similarly struggled to use turn their financial assistance to Pakistan into influence. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when international sanctions left Pakistan highly dependent on Saudi aid, Riyadh unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Pakistan to force the Taliban to hand over bin Laden.

If current aid in the 1990s couldn’t buy Saudi Arabia bin Laden, how can aid from the 1980s be expected to purchase a nuclear arsenal in the future? Unlike with bin Laden, Pakistan has compelling strategic incentives not to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons. Such a move would, of course, result in immediate and severe backlash from the U.S. and the West, who would organize international sanctions against Islamabad. They would also use their influence in the International Monetary Fund to end its aid package to Islamabad, which currently serves as Pakistan’s lifeline. Pakistan’s nuclear sales would also force Washington to end any pretense of neutrality between Pakistan and India, and significantly strengthen ties with the latter.

Pakistan’s all weather friendship with China would also be jeopardized. In fact, it’s quite possible China would be more infuriated than the U.S. because the Kingdom supplies about 20 percent of China’s oil imports, and Beijing’s dependence on Persian Gulf oil is expected to grow in the coming years. By opening Saudi Arabia up to a conventional or nuclear attack, Pakistan would be threatening China’s oil supplies, and through them the stability of the Communist Party. This is a sin Beijing would not soon forgive.

No country would be more enraged by Pakistan’s intransigence than its western neighbor, Iran. It is this fear of alienating Tehran that would be the biggest deterrent to selling Saudi Arabia a nuclear bomb. To begin with, Tehran would immediately halt natural-gas sales to energy-starved Pakistan. More importantly, it would finally embrace India wholeheartedly, including a large Indian presence along its border with Pakistan.

Thus by selling Saudi nuclear weapons, Pakistan would have guaranteed it is surrounded by India on three sides, given that Delhi uses Iran as its main access point to Afghanistan. India’s presence in Iran would also be detrimental to Pakistan, because Iran borders on Pakistan’s already volatile Balochistan province. This would allow India and Iran to aid Baloch separatist movements, conjuring up memories of Bangladesh in the minds of Pakistani leaders. Finally, Iran could give the Indian Navy access to Chabahar port, which Delhi has invested millions in upgrading. Aside from being encircled on land, Pakistan’s navy would now be boxed in by the Indian and Iranian navies.

For a country as obsessed with strategic depth as Pakistan, this situation would be nothing short of a calamity. The notion that Pakistan would resign itself to this fate simply to honor a promise it made to Saudi Arabia is no less farfetched than believing Saddam would arm al-Qaeda with nuclear weapons. That may be why three decades of speculation has turned up no evidence of a Saudi-Pakistani nuclear pact.

Zachary Keck is associate editor of The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.