Saudi Nuclear Program Progressing as New Saudi-Sino-Pakistan Alliance Emerging
Thursday, December 2, 2021
Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
While much is talked about the Iranian nuclear program, the same does not hold true for the Saudi one – which is progressing. Last month, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced it would soon determine the winner of a technical advice bid for its nuclear power program. Offers from four bidders are under analysis. In 2008, the US and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement whereby the former was to support the latter’s civilian nuclear program – not involving nuclear weapons, though. However, there have been concerns about the Kingdom’s nuclear intentions for a while. In 2003 there were already reports of Saudi authorities in Riyadh considering the nuclear bomb – such was discussed as an option in a strategy paper.
Way before that, the Saudis bought from China, in 1988, intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching any country in the Middle East with a nuclear warhead – and in 1984 a Saudi defence team – including then Minister of Defense Prince Sultan – was sent to Pakistan, where it toured nuclear facilities with then Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif. In that occasion, leading scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called “father of the Pakistan atomic bomb”, briefed the Prince on issues pertaining to nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in 2012, Beijing and Riyadh signed a mutual cooperation deal on nuclear energy.
The US “overlooked” this issue for years, but this is changing. The two countries are historic allies but more recently there have been tensions between Washington and Riyadh that arise at least partly from the current American administration’s “idealist” foreign policy, as some have described it. Since at least World War II, the US foreign policy has ambivalently oscillated between a “realist” foreign policy – focused on national interests – and an idealist one, that aspires to realize certain values, frequently rejecting the Westphalian sovereignty principle (that forbids states to intervene in the internal affairs of others). This oscillation seems to take place today within the current American administration itself.
While a Foreign Affair September piece described US President Joe Biden as essentially a pragmatic “realist” President, as exemplified by his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, – against all “liberal internationalist” expectations of “national-building” and promoting democracy in Afghanistan, and so on – Biden is in fact leading, this month, a Summit on Democracy. Some experts, like (US) Johns Hopkins University’s scholar David M. Anderson, argue that the very concepts of “realism” and “idealism” have become dated and “binary” today, and that Biden is thus seeking to advance a kind of pragmatic “third way” that would involve supporting democratic values without necessarily engaging in nation-building. This is part of today’s war of narratives and concepts that is marked with many contradictions
Joe Biden has emphasized from the beginning that his foreign policy would be guided by human rights – even though such has often taken the form of hypocrisy, as is the case in Colombia and Morocco, for instance. In any case, Washington’s apparently “idealist” take on Saudi Arabia has caused some tensions to arise between the two countries since at least the beginning of the year: The US no longer considers the Houthis who fight Saudi Arabia as terrorists, and has also cancelled arms sales to Riyadh. This could have interesting and perhaps unintended consequences for Washington.
The Saudi nuclear program is after all being developed in collaboration with the Chinese since at least 2018, and both the US and Israel have concerns about such cooperation. Beijing has helped to construct a Saudi facility for the extraction of uranium yellowcake out of uranium ore – an important intermediate step. The aforementioned recent developments in Washington-Riyadh bilateral relations can of course push the latter further away from the former – and even closer to China.
In this scenario, Pakistan authorities in Islamabad could in fact operate as a kind of bridge for Sino-Saudi relations. This is not far-fetched at all, for in the beginning of the year Riyadh and Islamabad were already advancing their reconciliation. In late October, the Kingdom decided to bail out Pakistan (whose economy is in very bad shape) and to support it with a $4.2 billion package.
And recently, there have been talks about the emergence of a Chinese-Saudi-Pakistan partnership focused on the port of Gwadar (in Pakistan, on the shores of the Arabian Sea), whose control Islamabad transferred to a Chinese state-owned company in 2013. This is a strategic port for Beijing because over half of Chinese imported oil comes from the Gulf region and thus passes through the Strait of Hormuz – which is only 650 kilometers from Gwadar. The Pakistan port could thus improve connectivity to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (in China). Moreover, Gwadar today is the end point for one of Beijing’s economic corridors comprising the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative, and is also part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, in its turn, is central for Sino-Pakistan relations today.
During Saudi Prince Sultan’s visit to Pakistan in February, he announced Riyadh will invest in an oil refinery in Gwadar. Both China and Saudi Arabia have geoeconomics interests in building a new infrastructure in Pakistan for a number of reasons. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have discussed with Saudi deputy prime minister Mohammad Bin Salman the need to connect the Saudi Vision 2030 with the Belt and Road Initiative, although no further details are known.
In light of such partnership, Beijing itself, in turn, could mediate between Tehran and Riyadh since the two Islamic countries have been holding talks towards reconciliation for a while now. The truth is that isolated Saudi Arabia needs news allies. Should it pursue deeper relations with China and should it also succeed in normalizing relations with Iran, one can then assume that any Saudi nuclear ambitions (civilian or otherwise) will become, in the future, the target of an intense international campaign led by the US – just as is so with Iran today.
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