The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has denied information about its nuclear cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized the story reported by the BBC in November 2013 – as entirely baseless and mischievous. Islamabad maintains the same position now, denying all information about such cooperation. However, today the world press is full of reports of a possible nuclear deal between Islamabad and Riyadh. What underlies the possible nuclear cooperation and why is this issue relevant now?
Riyadh showed its interest in Pakistan’s nuclear programme back in spring of 1998, when Islamabad held its first nuclear test in the province of Baluchistan in May of that year. The decision on carrying out a test explosion of the nuclear device in Chagai was taken by the Defence Committee of the upper chamber of the country’s parliament (Senate), chaired by the then Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif (during his second term in office, February 1997 – October 1999). Riyadh supported Islamabad and promised to supply crude oil at reduced rates in response to the economic sanctions imposed by Washington in the late 1990s.
Despite the fact that Pakistan’s nuclear tests were a response to similar tests conducted by New Delhi a few days earlier, Saudi Arabia was pursuing its own interests. Many years of experience in Pakistani-Saudi cooperation in the field of defence and security had been accumulated by that time. Rawalpindi (location of the Army Staff of Pakistan) sent its experts to train military personnel of the KSA, in its turn, the Saudi monarchy supplied arms to Islamabad. Pakistan’s nuclear programme took the central place in that country’s defence doctrine since it had been first developed, and the monarchy expected that “Pakistan would provide the KSA with a nuclear umbrella if ever required,” which, in turn, brought the positions of the two countries closer on many international issues. In the event of a hypothetical attack on the KSA, Riyadh certainly considered the issue of an adequate response, with the use of Islamabad’s nuclear capacity.
In 2011, in anticipation of international sanctions against Iran, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of the intelligence agency of Saudi Arabia, said that: “if Iran developed nuclear weapons, everyone in the region… would do the same.”
International media raised the issue of nuclear cooperation between Islamabad and Riyadh once again in 2013, and its relevance was dictated by several domestic, regional and international factors. The events of the “Arab Spring”, political reformatting of the majority of the Middle East countries, the Geneva Agreements of November 24, 2013, aimed at diluting the sanctions against Iran, the withdrawal of the U.S./NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign policy activities in the Persian Gulf area in the second half of 2013 – early 2014, etc. – are all components that still have to be considered.
Firstly, the rejection of Iran’s nuclear programme is one of the dominant factors in the regional policy of Riyadh. In the past, before the events of 2011 in the Middle East, the White House provided Saudi Arabia with certain security guaranties against the Iranian nuclear threat. However, the KSA started having some doubts long before November 24, 2013, and after the Geneva-1, these were confirmed. The monarchy fears that the nuclear “unsealing” of Iran could break the balance of forces established in the region. Currently, Saudi Arabia is voicing a complaint against the U.S. and Western countries because of their dilution of the sanctions against Tehran. In the past, anti-American and anti-Saudi sentiment of the Shiite population in Iran repeatedly fuelled the discontent of Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, etc., and the Gulf monarchies’ fears of Shiite uprisings. Many political analysts have suggested a low probability of using nuclear weapons, but at the same time, they supposed that Riyadh was afraid of a limited conflict.
Nuclear weapons have been used only once in the history of humankind, and they have been a deterrent in the modern world for a number of decades. Lacking its own nuclear weapons, Riyadh is interested in using the nuclear weapons available to the armed forces of Pakistan, as a deterrent to any armed aggression against the KSA. In this regard, the monarchy is interested in the development of political and economic cooperation with Islamabad, and is ready to provide financial support for the development of the defence capabilities of the country. In turn, Islamabad can use the development of its nuclear capacity as a tool for exerting political pressure in the region, as well as in its relations with India, Iran, etc. In November 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan said that: “Pakistan’s nuclear programme is purely for its own legitimate self-defence, and the maintenance of a credible, minimum deterrence.”
Secondly, it is the general tension in the relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The first signs appeared back in 2012, when the current U.S. administration actually turned adrift its longtime ally Hosni Mubarak, the overthrown president of Egypt. The ease with which Obama supported his successor M. Mursi, served as a clear lesson to all Gulf monarchies.
The Syrian issue also remains acute, for example, for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh openly criticized its Western allies for their backsliding in giving support to the Syrian opposition. Trying to expand its circle of sympathizers, the KSA involved Pakistan, asking its government to support a coalition government in Syria.
Thirdly, let us consider such factors as the withdrawal of the U.S./NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014. This will result in the weakening of Islamabad’s strategic cooperation with Washington, as it was in the late 1990s, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Such developments are likely to result in the need to replace American economic aid to Pakistan by Saudi aid, and in this context, Islamabad can really rely on the help of Riyadh. In March 2014, Riyadh allocated $1.5 million to Islamabad. Aziz, adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on national security and foreign policy, confirmed that this amount was approved with the purpose of providing economic support. Financial investments into the economy of Pakistan are leading to the strengthening Riyadh’s ideological, political and military influence on Islamabad. At the same time, Islamabad firmly adheres to the position that its nuclear programme is fully funded from national resources and has been developed by the country’s own scientists.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia place their priorities on the issues of security, since they share a common strategic space in the region. Given the above-mentioned, Islamabad considers itself entitled to answer Riyadh’s request for nuclear cooperation (in one form or another).
Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow in the Pakistan Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies of RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.