Alwaght- On Tuesday, the Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Tel Aviv will support Saudi Arabia’s entry to the club of nuclear states if Riyadh signs the treaty preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, NPT.
Steinitz, addressing World Gas Conference in Washington, said that the Israeli regime supports the development of nuclear power in the Arab kingdom if it includes the gold standard protections and if the kingdom purchases uranium from the US.
The remarks on the Saudi nuclear ambitions on the one hand signal the sensitivity and significance of a nuclear Saudi Arabia in the Israeli security strategy and on the other hand carry hallmarks of an eased tone of Tel Aviv on Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions after the Arab monarchy showed a will to support Arab-Israeli diplomatic normalization efforts. Saudis are winning the Israeli positive stance as they are deeply engaged in an endeavor to pave the way for the “deal of the century” on al-Quds (Jerusalem) through putting strains on the Palestinians to bow.
The oil-rich Arab monarchy has designed ambitious plans to develop the nuclear energy as part of a futuristic roadmap. A royal decree issued in 2010 by then-King Abdullah led to setting up a nuclear power and renewable energies research center, dubbed (KA-Care), in the capital Riyadh. The facility was meant to suggest solutions to address energy and water needs of the country in the future. A year later, the center announced the kingdom aims to build 16 nuclear reactors to produce about 20 percent of its electricity by 2032.
The nuclear roadmap resulted in nuclear cooperation agreements with a series of nuclear technology holders, including France, Argentina, South Korea, and Kazakhstan. According to the deals, Saudi Arabia will see its nuclear industry fully operational and production-ready by 2040. In June 2017, Prince Mohammed bin Salman replaced Prince Mohammad bin Nayef as crown prince. The young crown prince very soon started his motion to get the US green light and technology allowing the Saudis to enrich the uranium on their soil. Media reports suggested that nuclear cycle acquisition was a top case in the prince’s negotiations with the American officials during his March visit to the US.
Despite the Saudi show of desire to become a nuclear state, some factors affect the nuclear technology acquisition possibility: The argument on the type of nuclear power use, Tel Aviv’s role-playing in this course, and the Israeli insistence on keeping its military superiority in the region through nuclear weapons monopoly.
Now a question presents itself: Is the Israeli compromise to the Saudi nuclear ambitions a fruit of Prince Mohammed-led pro-normalization policy, concession to the Israelis, and turning a blind eye to US embassy relocation to al-Quds at the price of the Palestinian cause?
Sham support, strategic opposition
Over the past few months, the Israeli-Arab normalization ended its secret phase and came to surface under the cover of sports and cultural conferences and visits. There is no shadow of a doubt that Saudi Arabia is leading an Arab-Israeli normalization campaign. Israelis are hoping to break the decades-long geopolitical isolation on the strength of a new Saudi ruler in good terms with the Israeli agenda. The help from bin Salman, Tel Aviv leaders hope, will put an end to the troublesome Palestinian case and lead to a stronger confrontation with Axis of Resistance which stretches from Iran to Lebanon, covering Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other actors. So, Tel Aviv, as a sign of good faith, does not want to oppose a nuclear Riyadh, even worse a Riyadh with nuclear weapons, despite knowing that the Saudis seek domestic enrichment cycle ultimately for military purposes. Because any opposition to the Saudi ambitions may set up a new roadblock ahead of normalization efforts.
The Israeli position shift comes in surprise because it earlier even came against Riyadh’s missile purchases. In 1980s Saudi Arabia bought Dongfeng-3 missiles from China. In reaction, the Israelis warned the US against the Saudi procurement of nuclear-capable missiles. Pressures finally led to the Congress passing a bill stopping American missiles sales to the kingdom. Additional strains made Saudi Arabia sign NPT, or Non-Proliferation Treaty. The key Israeli policy is to preclude the regional states from using nuclear energy. But under some considerations, Tel Aviv now agrees with a nuclear Riyadh sans nuclear fuel cycle.
But nuclear energy without nuclear fuel cycle does not meet the Saudi ambitions. Along with speeding up the normalization process, the Saudis insist that saving the balance of power with Iran is a key drive behind their nuclear aspirations, something the Saudis hope can help ease the Western and Israeli sensitivity. But the Saudi nuclear efforts date back longer.
Documents revealed by Mohammed al-Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat who defected in 1994, suggest that Saudi Arabia developed interests in nuclear research in the 1960s. Al-Khilewi’s documents added that the Saudis began their civilian nuclear program in the late 1970s. In 1977, Riyadh opened King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). A decade later, the kingdom established Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI) at KACST. The AERI launched research on the industrial use of radionuclide, reactors, nuclear material, and radiation protection. The Saudi defector further disclosed that Saudi Arabia started a secret nuclear program in a site, dubbed Al-Harajah site, in southwest of Riyadh after 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Another reason for Saudi Arabia to move towards developing nuclear arms is its military weakness and vulnerability caused by its geopolitical position. With its 2.15 million square kilometers of area size, Saudi Arabia is a big country. The capital is in the center, but the income sources and facilities, like oil facilities, are located on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea coasts, hence being an easy target for military action from air and sea. The failure to win a war waged against Yemen in 2015 after three years has exhibited the Saudi military weakness.
But Saudi nuclear ambitions are unlikely to materialize despite Riyadh’s compliance with the Western and Israeli interests in the Palestinian dispute. An unclear Saudi future caused by the fragility of the Al Saud family rule prevents a US go-ahead to nuclear technology acquisition.