The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Saudi Arabia has, with China’s assistance, constructed a facility that will mill natural uranium into yellowcake. Uranium yellowcake can be processed further to make either fuel rods for a nuclear power/research reactor or the core of nuclear weapons. Those next steps – either for peaceful uses or for weapons -- are not simple and require large-scale construction as well as sophisticated know-how. While the information on the facility is now public, it was likely known for some time by the United States, Israel, Russia, and Iran. The plant construction should be seen as part of the Saudi government’s ongoing multi-pronged strategy of military and economic hedging. The economic component is long-term – working on nuclear power to meet electricity demand extends the lifespan of Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas reserves and earns points for carbon free energy. The United Arab Emirates just had its first South Korean-designed nuclear power plant reach criticality last week, and it has characterized this advance in economic and environmental terms.
Saudi Arabia’s military-security hedging follows steps taken in 1988 to acquire Chinese ballistic missiles in response to the Iran-Iraq war’s “war of the cities.” Since that time, Saudi Arabia has upgraded its Chinese-provided missile force, acquired more long-range sophisticated fighter planes, and continued progress towards acquiring the technology and know-how necessary to produce a nuclear weapon should it so desire. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was clear in 2018 about the kingdom’s plans with regard to a nuclear deterrent against Iran, pledging that "…if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” As Iran continues to take steps to reduce its nuclear “break-out time” (the time it would take to produce the amount of fissile material required for a nuclear weapon), Saudi Arabia will continue steps to reduce its own.
The circumstances driving Saudi Arabia to develop a latent nuclear weapon and delivery capability are unlikely to change, and the United States will be unwilling or unable to affect Riyadh’s decision calculus. Next steps for Riyadh include building two types of reactors – research and power – as well as possibly working on uranium enrichment and/or plutonium reprocessing. Those latter two processes are necessary to produce the fissile material required for a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, both are also industrial processes that produce materials for peaceful uses of nuclear energy including power and medical isotopes. In other words, peaceful nuclear technological development and weapons manufacture are closely linked for much of way. At the moment, the Trump administration is supportive of Saudi Arabia building reactors, hoping that U.S. companies may garner some of the contracts. It has also not pushed Saudi Arabia to open any new nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
A different U.S. administration could press for such assurances or even a halt to Saudi activities, but its leverage would be limited for two reasons. First, there are suppliers available, like China, who are willing to provide technology to Saudi Arabia with fewer strings attached. Second, Riyadh is less and less certain of the credibility of Washington’s security umbrella. This is, in fact, a main driver to Saudi Arabia’s hedging strategy. The concern crosses U.S. political parties and associated policies. The Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran was seen in Riyadh as naive and detrimental to Saudi security. The Trump administration’s regional pullback (Iraq and Afghanistan) and its unwillingness to retaliate for attacks on Saudi oil facilities only strengthens Riyadh’s rational for going its own way on the ultimate guarantor of its security – a latent, and maybe one day actual, nuclear weapon and associated delivery capability.