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Defending Riyadh with weapons of mass destruction

July 3, 2015 at 10:56 am

As predicted, an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme was not reached by the 30 June deadline and the delegates at the G5+1 talks gave themselves an extra seven days. Supreme Leader Ali Khameini went back on a condition set by the previous talks to allow international inspection of Iran’s military bases. So far, even the extension sessions are moving slowly, to the frustration of the delegates and regional powers who are waiting for the crucial details that will shape the dynamics of political power in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has been a major concern for the past few weeks. In May, former intelligence chief Prince Turki Bin Faisal said in South Korea, “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” with reference to the possibility of Iran getting nuclear weapons. Riyadh has also distanced itself diplomatically from Washington, which was made clear when King Salman refused to attend a US-Arab summit in Camp David, also in May, and sent Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince and Defence Minister instead.

A diplomatic initiative with Russia has also been initiated by Saudi Arabia. The crown prince visited Moscow a fortnight ago and signed a deal for Russia to build 16 nuclear reactors to provide renewable energy, as announced on the “King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy” website on 18 June.

Despite the initiatives to increase Saudi’s nuclear profile, it is very unlikely in the foreseeable future that it will try to become a nuclear state. Nevertheless, there have been suspicions over its nuclear ambitions since the mid-eighties, during the Iraq-Iran war. King Fahad felt uneasy about relying purely on Saddam Hussein to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world; the media has speculated since then about Riyadh getting nuclear weapons. The suspicions deepened significantly in 1988 when it was discovered that Saudi had purchased 36 CSS-2 intermediate ballistic missiles, with a range of 3,000km; the whole of the Middle East could be a Saudi target, including Iran and Israel.

Although bought from China, a Soviet ally, no serious attempt has been made to this day for Saudi to disengage itself from the unofficial oil for security strategic alliance with America that has been the norm from the creation of the kingdom.

Since the execution of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of Iraq, Saudi Arabia is now the main regional military power standing against Iran. To Riyadh’s dismay, the current Iranian threat is happening at a time when Washington is reducing its military presence in the Middle East. It is also currently involved in a proxy war as a result of being at the forefront of the power struggle in Yemen. More than ever, therefore, it is in Saudi’s interest to prevent Iran from acquiring further military capabilities.

For Riyadh to distance itself from Washington over disagreements about this issue is understandable. To put pressure on Washington to take a more hard-line approach to the Iran nuclear talks by turning to Moscow is also understandable. What people who believe that Saudi is looking to match Iran’s nuclear capability forget, though, is that Saudi Arabia is currently stuck in an asymmetrical war and needs to boost its non-conventional military capabilities. The air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen are not working, neither is the blockade. If anything, they have militarised the Houthis further, allowed ISIS to grow and created a humanitarian crisis, including a dengue fever epidemic in its southern neighbour.

Over recent years, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, Iran’s way of spreading influence in the Arab world has not been through an arms race, but through funding and arming government opposition groups to create instability. With instabilities come power vacuums, which Iran may exploit.

The truth facing Riyadh is that if it wants to prevail in the power struggle, it will have to advance its military capabilities to combat the asymmetrical threat coming from the other side of the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Weapons of mass destruction, although obviously important to assert authority, are nothing more than a symbolic deterrent, for now at least. The past three months should have taught Saudi to enhance its military capabilities to deal with asymmetric threats and to place counter-terrorism at the heart of its defence policy. It is also important to remember that we are moving away from the bipolar global structure upon which Saudi has based its policies for decades. This means that Saudi Arabia, as a key regional power, needs to go back to the basics and ask itself what it means to defend itself in the changing Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.