In evaluating Pakistan’s relations with its major benefactors, we tend to consider only the United States and China and normally overlook Saudi Arabia’s role. The kingdom provides ideological succour and, nowadays, Wahhabi sustenance and financial support exert influence on Pakistan’s domestic politics. There has to be some mutuality of interests in this bilateral with Pakistan playing on the kingdom’s insecurities in relation to Iran and Israel, its own domestic dissidence and its vulnerabilities as an oil rich country in a turbulent neighbourhood.
While the rest of the world talks of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the issue of Saudi-Pakistan nuclear tie-ups never got proven but never quite disappeared. Suspicions remain, especially because Pakistan, a Sunni country, sold nuclear secrets to Shia Iran with whom its relations were never on the same plane as with Saudi Arabia. Logically, Saudi Arabia should have been Pakistan’s market of first choice and gratitude. Although concrete evidence on Saudi intentions to acquire nuclear weapons’ capabilities is not there, the story continues to attract international commentary.
The ‘father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb’ Abdul Qadeer Khan was back in the news when we heard earlier this month that the Pakistan government had sought permission to ‘investigate’ his clandestine nuclear bazaar. It made sense to announce it on the eve of the visit of a high-powered Pakistani delegation to the US where they planned to seek (and in fact did so) a civilian nuclear deal (CNE) of the India-US kind. Pakistan could not be seen to be seeking CNE while one of its national heroes remained an unpunished clandestine peddler of nuclear weapons secrets to an unrepentant Iran.
However, Khan’s travel itinerary during his days as the merchant of Armageddon was very instructive. In the ten years till his network was ‘discovered’ in 2004, Khan visited Dubai more than 40 times, apart from visiting 18 other countries. Among the destinations were Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and, probably, most often Saudi Arabia. The role Saudi Arabia paid in the development of the Pakistani bomb in the 1970s is well known. A grateful Zulfiqar Bhutto renamed Lyallpur, Pakistan’s third-largest city, as Faisalabad to acknowledge the Saudi monarch’s generosity.
The Saudis had established a nuclear research centre in al-Sulayyil, south of Riyadh, in 1975. By the mid-1980s, they were providing financial assistance to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear projects and offered funds to rebuild the Osirak reactor after the Israelis had destroyed it in June 1981. Saudi scientists were being trained in Baghdad. Apparently, the agreement between King Fahd and Saddam was that some of the bombs would be transferred to Saudi Arabia. But this agreement broke down after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. It also seems that the Americans were aware of this transaction at some level. By 1986, the Saudis had also acquired 36 CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles from China. It was presumed at that time that these were for delivery of nuclear weapons.
In 1994, a Saudi UN diplomat, Muhammed al Khilewi, was defected with about 10,000 documents among which were some that showed linkages between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and a pact had been signed by the two countries that in case of a nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would retaliate against the aggressor. It was during the 1990s that the Saudis began to provide financial assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme when North Korean missiles were traded with the financial backing from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also came to Pakistan’s rescue after the 1998 nuclear tests when they provided Pakistan with 50,000 barrels of oil per day free, to overcome the effect of sanctions.
In May 1999, Saudi deputy premier Prince Sultan bin Abdel al-Aziz, on a visit to Pakistan, was shown the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant — a privilege that was not granted by Pakistan’s military to their Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto some years earlier. A.Q. Khan had briefed the visiting Saudi minister. Prince Sultan also visited the Ghauri missile factory. Later in the year, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Khan discussed possibilities of cooperation for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in agriculture and genetic engineering.
The withdrawal of the US forces from Saudi Arabia, for relocation in Qatar, in August 2003, led the Saudis to seek to strengthen their strategic relations with Pakistan and welcome Pakistani troops in replacement. There was probably a strategic review by the Saudis, which examined the need to acquire nuclear capability as a deterrent and forge an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection. This was denied officially in September. But there were also reports that the Saudis were considering replacing their outmoded CSS-2 with the nuclear-capable 500 km range CSS-5 missile in an oil-for-missile deal with China.
In October 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz led a huge delegation to Pakistan. At the end of the visit, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in a press conference that India-Israel defence cooperation would inflame the region, escalate the arms race and trigger instability. It was clearly left unsaid that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were going to react to this ‘threat’. A few years later, German magazine Cicero in its April 2006 edition alleged that Pakistan had been collaborating with Saudi Arabia for several years to build a “secret nuclear programme”. Citing western experts, the report stated that Pakistani scientists had travelled to Saudi Arabia for the last three years, disguised as Haj pilgrims and then disappear for weeks to work on this programme. Further, that the al-Sulayyil missile base was being upgraded and that there was a “secret underground city” with silos to house Ghauri missiles.
According to assessments in 2008 and 2009, Saudi Arabia, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is unlikely to move towards open nuclearisation for the fear of international reactions. But, at the same time, should Iran go nuclear, Saudi Arabia may do likewise. Meanwhile, Pakistan would remain the main proliferator in a non-proliferation era.
A great deal will depend on how the US reacts to these developments. Adverse US reaction against a Saudi nuclearisation, following an Iranian nuclearisation, is not a given. Pakistan, as a cash-strapped country, could sell its lethal goods to an insecure regime and acquire nuclear depth.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.
The views expressed by the author are personal.