Saudi Arabia, in response to the current upheaval in the Middle East, has embarked on a strategic review that includes acquiring nuclear weapons, the Guardian has learned.
This new threat of proliferation in one of the most dangerous regions of the world comes on top of a crisis over Iran's alleged nuclear program.
A strategy paper being considered at the highest levels in Riyadh sets out three options:
· To acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent;
· To maintain or enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection;
· To try to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.
Until now, the assumption in Washington was that Saudi Arabia was content to remain under the US nuclear umbrella. But the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US has steadily worsened since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington: 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi.
It is not known whether Saudi Arabia has taken a decision on any of the three options. But the fact that it is prepared to contemplate the nuclear option is a worrying development.
United Nations officials and nuclear arms analysts said the Saudi review reflected profound insecurities generated by the volatility in the Middle East, Riyadh's estrangement with Washington and the weakening of its reliance on the US nuclear umbrella.
They pointed to the Saudi worries about an Iranian program and to the absence of any international pressure on Israel, which has an estimated 200 nuclear devices.
"Our antennae are up," said a senior UN official watching worldwide nuclear proliferation efforts. "The international community can rest assured we do keep track of such events if they go beyond talk."
Saudi Arabia does not regard Iran, a past adversary with which Riyadh has restored relations, as a direct threat. But it is unnerved by the possibility of Iran and Israel having nuclear weapons.
Riyadh is also worried about a string of apparent leaks in American papers from the US administration critical of Saudi Arabia.
David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington thinktank, said he doubted whether the Saudis would try to build a nuclear bomb, preferring instead to try to buy a nuclear warhead. They would be the first of the world's eight or nine nuclear powers to have bought rather than built the bomb.
"There has always been worries that the Saudis would go down this path if provoked," said Mr Albright. "There is growing US hostility which could lead to the removal of the US umbrella and will the Saudis be intimidated by Iran? They've got to be nervous."
UN officials said there have been rumors going back 20 years that the Saudis wanted to pay Pakistan to do the research and development on nuclear weapons.
In 1988, Saudi bought from China intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching any part of the Middle East with a nuclear warhead.
Four years ago, Saudi Arabia sent a defense team to Pakistan to tour its secret nuclear facilities and to be briefed by Abdul Qader Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.
A UN official said: "There's obviously a lot of restlessness in the Middle East. Regional insecurity tends to produce a quest for a nuclear umbrella. The Saudis have the money and could provide it to Pakistan."
Mr Albright said the Saudis would face a long haul if they were determined to acquire nuclear weapons. He doubted whether anyone would sell.
Arab countries yesterday urged the International Atomic Energy Authority, the UN nuclear watchdog, to get tough with Israel to let inspectors assess its nuclear program. in line with similar pressure on Iran.
Oman's ambassador to the IAEA, Salim al-Riyami, speaking on behalf of the Arab League, which represents Arab states, said it was time to get tough with Israel. "I think it's time to deal with this issue more substantively than before," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003