Frenemies with Nuclear Benefits: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Shaheen III-missile range, Pakistan missile tested in March 2015

The Pakistani Parliament, even while stating its commitment to protect the territory of Saudi Arabia, recently adopted a resolution not to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen….The foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, blasted the decision as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected,” accusing Pakistan of advancing Iran’s interests rather than those of its own Persian Gulf allies. Pakistan was choosing neutrality in an “existential confrontation,” he said, and it would pay the price… Millions of Pakistanis work in the Persian Gulf, sending back vast remittances. Many of Pakistan’s politicians and generals have major investments in the region, and some have a deep affinity for Wahhabism. Rich Arabs in Pakistan are treated like royalty, allowed to flout hunting and environmental protection laws… [S]ome backpedaling has begun. The Pakistani military agreed to commit naval vessels to help enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis. This, however, will not undo the damage: The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s ties with its Arab benefactors, even if it turns out to be temporary, is unprecedented.

For Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Parliament’s surprising assertion of independence was especially worrisome because it came on the heels of the American-backed preliminary nuclear deal with Iran…This development undermines Saudi Arabia’s longstanding nuclear strategy. In the 1970s, partly to extend its influence, partly in the name of Muslim solidarity, it began bankrolling Pakistan’s nuclear program. In gratitude, the Pakistani government renamed the city of Lyallpur as Faisalabad, after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. When Pakistan seemed to dither after India tested five nuclear bombs in May 1998, the Saudi government pledged to give it 50,000 barrels of oil a day for free. Pakistan soon tested six of its own bombs. Later, the Saudi defense minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the secret nuclear and missile facilities at the Kahuta complex near Islamabad… In exchange for its largesse, Saudi Arabia has received Pakistani military assistance in the form of soldiers, expertise and ballistic missiles.

The Saudi government has taken the quid pro quo to imply certain nuclear benefits as well, including, if need be, the delivery at short notice of some of the nuclear weapons it has helped pay for. Some Pakistani warheads are said to have been earmarked for that purpose and reportedly are stocked at the Minhas air force base in Kamra, near Islamabad. (Pakistan, which has as many as 120 nuclear warheads, denies this..)

The Saudis have also come to expect that they fall under the nuclear protection of Pakistan, much like, say, Japan is covered by the United States’s nuclear umbrella. Pakistan’s nuclear forces were developed to target India, but they can strike farther, as was recently demonstrated by the successful test launch of the Shaheen-3 missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with South Korea “to assess the potential” for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It plans to build 16 nuclear-power reactors over the next 20 years, with the first reactor expected to be on line in 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association. It insists on having a full civilian fuel cycle, leaving open the possibility of reprocessing weapon-grade plutonium from nuclear waste.

Excerpts, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan, the Saudis’ Indispensable Nuclear Partnership, NY Times, Apr. 21, 2015

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