Last week in an op-ed in the New York Times Saudi Ambassador to London and the king’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud declared that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “will not stand idly by” as the U.S. concedes Saudi Arabia's security and “risk[s] the region’s stability”. The kingdom, he added, has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: The Saudis are “more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs”.
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Disappointed by the Syria and Iran agreements, the Saudis believe that many of the West’s policies risk their stability and security. Until now, Saudi Arabia's rulers felt secure under the American security umbrella. However, the impact on Saudi national security of an Iran achieving nuclear capabilities may change the strategic calculations of the House of Saud. Already, questions about how willing the U.S. is to continue extending its support have pushed Riyadh to reconsider its strategy. These concerns existed even before America’s agreements with Syria and Iran but were intensified by them.
The conventional assessment is that Saudi threats “to go it alone” are intended tactically, to pressure the U.S. to deal more forcibly with Iran, and are not intended as a general declaration of disengagement from the U.S. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s options are limited. In spite of its great wealth, the kingdom is not able to confront significant threats in its strategic environment on its own. Furthermore, no other major power is currently interested in or capable of filling the role played by the United States, i.e. the deterrence of and protection from Iran.
However, because of the erosion in Saudi confidence in the United States, the kingdom might seek to diversify risks and formulate a parallel web of relations, which even if not perfect will improve its security situation, including an attempt to obtain an independent, “off-the-shelf” nuclear deterrent in the future.
Saudi Arabia is the number one candidate for further proliferation in the Middle East. It has both the strategic motivation and financial capability to strive for the nuclear option. As a leading Arab state and as Iran's ideological-religious rival and main competitor for regional influence, Saudi Arabia will find it difficult to sit quietly by should Iran obtain military nuclear capability, even before an Iranian nuclear breakout.
Gary Samore, Obama's top former advisor for disarmament and Iran's nuclear program said this month in Tel Aviv that “one cannot rule out the positioning of Pakistani nuclear weapons, under Pakistani control, on Saudi soil”. It was the Saudis who paid for the Pakistani bomb and the moment to "cash their investment" is getting closer. Indeed, out of fear for the stability of the Saudi kingdom, in 2011 Pakistan placed some of its forces on alert to be sent to Saudi Arabia if security there deteriorated.
The Saudi ambassador’s article, as well as other more significant steps, like giving up its seat on the UN Security Council, are intended as pressure on the United States. There are unusual because they give public expression to the Saudis’ dissatisfaction and growing frustration with what they perceive as mistaken American policy. The current U.S. administration is seen by Riyadh as weak, naive, and willing to shun the use of military power at almost any price.
The Saudis rarely put all their eggs in one basket. Given its enormous wealth and military weakness, it is a safe bet that Saudi Arabia will invest in multiple security arrangements that help guarantee the continuity of the regime. As Iran approaches the nuclear threshold there will be increased pressure on Pakistan to meet its obligations to Saudi Arabia in the field.
Riyadh, like Tehran, may conclude that its security constraints as well as the attendant prestige and influence generated by becoming a nuclear state outweigh the political and economic costs it is paying and could pay as a consequence of the decision to go nuclear.
Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow in the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University and former Iran Coordinator in Israel’s National Security Council