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Is Pakistan helping the Saudis with a nuclear deterrent?

October 04, 2011 13:01 IST

Worried by Iran's nuclear ambitions, Saudi Arabia is trying to strike a secret deal with Pakistan to buy readymade nuclear weapons, says Amir Mir.

For long, Saudi Arabia has been one of the two foreign hands (the other being the United States) rocking the cradle of Pakistani politics, brokering truce among warring political leaders, providing asylum to those exiled by the military establishment and lavishing funds on a state strapped for cash. But there seems to be a role reversal now keeping in view some recent international media reports about a possible nuclear cooperation between Islamabad and Riyadh.

While highlighting the alleged Pakistan-Saudi nuclear collaboration, the international media has recently reported that worried by Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Riyadh is trying to strike a secret deal with Pakistan to buy readymade nuclear weapons instead of going through the lengthy process of developing its own.

These reports have appeared at a time when the Pakistan army and the royal Saudi land forces are holding a three week-long joint exercise -- Al-Samsaam-IV-2011 -- near the Jhelum district of Punjab.

The Pakistan-Saudi Arabia nuclear cooperation was first reported on September 8 (external link) by haaretz.com, an Israeli Web site, followed by another report on September 15 by an American news agency, United Press International.

The haaretz.com report said that concerned by rapid progress being made by Iran towards fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, Saudi Arabia is mulling a secret nuclear cooperation with Pakistan to counter Tehran's military designs in the region.

The report said, although Riyadh has a memorandum of cooperation with the United States over building nuclear reactors for generating electricity, the Saudi royal family is divided over the issue with some heavyweights favouring a secret programme for military uses with Islamabad's help.

Being a Sunni-dominated Muslim-majority State, Pakistan has sought to develop close bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia, the largest country on the Arabian peninsula and home to the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Both the Islamic countries had faced common enemies in the past successfully and are confronted with yet another common enemy even today -- Al Qaeda.

Close geographical proximity, historic trade relations, religious affinity and complementary nature of economic needs have created a strong bondage of trust between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

As early as 1969, the Pakistan air force flew the aircraft of the royal Saudi air force to help fend off an invasion from South Yemen. In the 1970s and 1980s, about 15,000 Pakistani soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia to protect the country's oil fields. Against the backdrop of the recent uprisings in the Middle East and the Arab world which led to the ouster of several autocratic rulers of the Muslim world, Pakistan had played a key role in the region by supporting Saudi Arabia to preempt a possible revolt against the Saudi kingdom.

Besides placing two army divisions on standby to help Riyadh should any trouble break out, the Pakistan government helped the Saudi kingdom with the recruitment of thousands of ex-Pakistani military personnel for Bahrain's national guard.

Resultantly, Islamabad has received more financial aid from the Saudis than any other country outside the Arab world. Those in Riyadh who favour the preparation of a nuclear programme for military uses in cooperation with Pakistan include Saudi Defence Minister Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, and its former intelligence chief, Turki Bin Faisal.

Hence, while progressing towards this end several Pakistani nuclear scientists recently visited Saudi Arabia to meet, among others, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the head of the Saudi national security council and former ambassador to the United States. Prince Bandar is considered among those in the Saudi royal family who are encouraging the nuclear connection with Pakistan to put his country on a secret path to becoming nuclear.

According to the UPI report, Saudi Arabia is beefing up its military links with Pakistan to counter Iran's expansionist plans which includes acquiring atomic arms from the only Muslim nuclear power or its pledge of nuclear cover.

'Pakistan has become a front-line State for Sunni Islam and is being positioned by its leaders, particularly in the powerful military and intelligence establishments, as a bulwark against Shia Iran and its proxies. Increasingly, Pakistan is rushing to the defence of Saudi Arabia, with whom it has a long had discreet security links,' the UPI report said.

The UPI report added that the concerns about Saudi plans to buy readymade nuclear weapons were raised in June 1994. A Saudi defector, Mohammed Abdalla al-Khilewi, the No 2 official in the Saudi mission to the United Nations in New York, claimed Riyadh had paid up to $5 billion to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to build it a nuclear weapon.

Al-Khilewi is a former Saudi Arabian diplomat noted for his brazen May 1994 defection in which he issued a declaration on the Saudi embassy letterhead proclaiming King Fahd to be despotic and calling for a redistribution of the country's wealth and power.

An expert in nuclear proliferation, al-Khilewi had produced 13,000 documents to support his claim that Saudi Arabia was engaged in a secret 20-year effort to acquire nuclear weapons, first with Iraq, which Riyadh backed in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and then with Pakistan.

His documents showed that Riyadh helped bankroll Pakistan's clandestine nuclear project and signed a pact that in the event Saudi Arabia was attacked with nuclear weapons, Islamabad would immediately respond against the aggressor with its own nuclear arms.

Well-informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad believe the recent media reports about a possible nuclear cooperation between Riyadh and Islamabad are credible. According to them, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have developed extensive defence and strategic ties to an extent that Riyadh is now secretly working on an alleged nuclear programme with the help of Pakistani experts.

The nuclear partnership between Riyadh and Islamabad is reportedly aimed at providing the kingdom with a nuclear deterrent on short notice if and when needed.

Determined not to fall behind in the Middle East nuclear race, Saudi Arabia has allegedly arranged to make available two Pakistani nuclear bombs or guided missile warheads which are most probably held in Pakistan's nuclear air base at Kamra in the northern district of Attock in Punjab province.

In fact, the fresh reports about the Pakistan-Saudi nuclear deal were prompted by the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent disclosure that Iran has begun to install the centrifuges in its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.

'The transfer of centrifuges at Natanz (which is the only Iranian enrichment facility in central Iran) to Fordoo is underway, with all necessary safety measures,' said the head of Iran's nuclear weapons programme, Fereydoun Abbassi Davani, in an interview to Iranian television August 22.

The announcement was described as provocation by the United States which is much concerned at the acceleration of uranium enrichment by Tehran. The West's prime area of concern remains the production by Iran of highly enriched uranium to 20 percent, with a technique closer to Tehran's ability to produce enough enriched uranium (over 90 percent) to make a nuclear weapon.

The 2009 revelation by Western intelligence agencies about the secret construction of the Fordoo uranium enrichment plant in violation of UN resolutions had caused a serious crisis between Iran and the international community which eventually led to a strengthening of economic sanctions and Western policies against Iran in July 2010.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is not known to have a nuclear weapons programme. From an official and public standpoint, Saudi Arabia has been an opponent of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is a member of the coalition of countries demanding a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East. However, over the years, there have been media reports of Saudi intent to purchase a nuclear weapon from an outside source.

In 2003, a leaked strategy paper laid out three possible options for the Saudi government: To acquire a nuclear deterrent, to ally with and become protected by an existing nuclear nation, or to try to reach agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.

International apprehensions that Saudi Arabia would seek to acquire nuclear weapons rose periodically over the last decade. Saudi Arabia's geopolitical situation gives it strong reasons to consider acquiring nuclear weapons: The current volatile security environment in the Middle East; the growing number of States (particularly Iran and Israel) with weapons of mass destruction in the region; and the Iranian ambition to dominate the region.

International concerns about Saudi nuclear ambitions intensified in 2003 in the wake of revelations about Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr A Q Khan's proliferation activities. The IAEA investigations showed that A Q Khan sold or offered nuclear weapons technology to Saudia and several Middle Eastern states, including Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The unearthing of the blackmarket nuclear technology network increased international suspicions that Dr Khan had developed ties with Riyadh, which has the capability to pay for all kinds of nuclear-related services. Even before the revelations about Dr Khan's activities, concerns about Pak-Saudi nuclear cooperation persisted, largely due to strengthened cooperation between the two Islamic countries.

In particular, frequent high-level visits of Saudi and Pakistani officials over the past several years raised serious questions about the possibility of clandestine Pakistan-Saudi nuclear cooperation.

In May 1999, a Saudi Arabian team, headed by Defence Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, visited Pakistan's highly restricted uranium enrichment and missile assembly factory.

The Saudi prince toured the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and an adjacent factory with then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif where the Ghauri missile was being assembled and was briefed by Dr Khan.

A few months later, Khan traveled to Saudi Arabia [in November 1999] ostensibly to attend a symposium on 'Information Sources on the Islamic World'. The same month, Dr Saleh al-Athel, president, King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, visited Pakistan to work out details for cooperation in the fields of engineering, electronics and computer science.

In 2003, President General Pervez Musharraf paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, and former Pakistani prime minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali visited the kingdom twice. But the US had warned Pakistan for the first time in December 2003 against providing nuclear assistance to Riyadh.

International concerns over Pak-Saudi nuclear assistance intensified after the October 2003 visit of Saudi Arabia's then de facto ruler Crown Prince, now King, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to Pakistan.

During that visit, American intelligence circles alleged, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had concluded a clandestine agreement on nuclear cooperation that was meant to provide the Saudis with nuclear-weapons technology in exchange for cheap oil.

However, in 2005, the United Stated claimed to have acquired fresh evidence, suggesting that a broader government-to-government Pakistan-Saudi atomic collaboration is still on. Subsequent news reports in American media said that a chartered Saudi C-130 Hercules plane made scores of trips between Dhahran military base and several Pakistani cities, including Lahore and Karachi, between October 2003 and October 2004, and thereafter, considerable contacts were reported between Pakistani and Saudi Arabian nuclear scientists.

Between October 2004 and January 2005, under the cover of Haj, several Pakistani scientists visited Riyadh, and remained missing from their designated hotels for 15 to 20 days.

The intimacy between Islamabad and Riyadh has been exceptional and it is not without significance that the first foreign tour of Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in October 1999, was to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Sharif himself, his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif and their families took asylum in Saudi Arabia after a secret exile deal between Musharraf and Sharif, in which Riyadh had played a key role.

According to US intelligence findings, as reported by international media, during Nawaz Sharif's second prime ministerial tenure, Saudi Arabia had been involved in funding Islamabad's missile and nuclear program purchases from China, as a result of which Pakistan became a nuclear weapon-producing and proliferating State.

For decades, the Western media and their intelligence agencies have linked Pakistan's dishonoured nuclear scientist Dr Khan and the ISI, to nuclear-technology transfers, and it was hard to credit the idea that the successive governments Dr Khan served had been oblivious of these activities.

In the post-9/11 era, analysts continue to express fears about the possibility of extremist Islamic groups like Al Qaeda gaining access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons or fissile or radioactive materials.

Under these conditions, Islamabad's pursuing any clandestine nuclear deal with Riyadh can only aggravate such risks and international concerns.

Amir Mir