Ruling the Kingdom: US Agency in the Saudi Arabian Nuclear Proliferation Puzzle

Ruling the Kingdom: US Agency in the Saudi Arabian Nuclear Proliferation Puzzle

Peter J. Kalogiros


With the agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, fears are on the rise that Iran may go the path of North Korea by weaponizing under the framework. This has led many to speculate what the response would be from other regional actors such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Egypt, Turkey, and Israel. Will the nuclear dominoes fall causing a cascade effect among proximal states? Who may be able to influence this problem and how? To answer these questions, we must begin with the premise that Iran has acquired a nuclear weapon and that others have allowed this to occur. The US declared that a weaponized Iran will not be tolerated and Israel threatened military force. Some argue that weaponization is improbable just as some posit that it is probable. At the heart of the discussion are security assurances and alliance effectiveness, nonproliferation regime integrity, and US credibility. In addressing these questions we uncover the effects of alliances on proliferation and how to modify the terms to impede proliferation. The larger issue is the nonproliferation regime, which has prevented widespread proliferation in some cases but failed in others.

I argue that the US can make use of existing resources coupled with minor policy alterations to compel KSA down a path of nuclear nonproliferation. I begin with the premise that Iran possesses a nuclear weapon and consider if existing security arrangements give the US coercive power to prevent KSA proliferation. I also assume that KSA has denied security commitments from Pakistan and has refrained from pursuing a twin-track program, which is congruent with the literature.[1]

US Agency and Maneuver Space

The US holds many cards in KSA’s proliferation game but if they will be played remains the question. While KSA is still a leading producer of oil and the US is reliant upon their exports, imports from KSA have dropped 50% since 2014 and are at one of their lowest points in the last two decades.[2] The recent “oil war” between KSA and the US illustrates the desperation of the regime to preserve market share. While achieving “energy independence” is doubtful due to both consumption rates and economic interdependence, this decrease in US dependence on KSA oil exports creates space for diplomatic and economic power maneuvering. While blanket multilateral sanctions are improbable because of their fragile nature and the economic influence of KSA, targeted sanctions and import / export controls are not inconceivable and would harm KSA’s liberal economy.

US action is also credible on account of the desire to maintain relative stability in the region. This is paramount for the US and others, in particular Asian nations. Asian nations received 68% of KSA exports in 2013 and while this may decrease their desire to come to an agreement on multilateral sanctions, if the alternative is an arms race between Iran and KSA, they may be enticed to agree on some form of diplomatic and economic power expression. Coercion within any issue area is often unsuccessful in a vacuum or in a bilateral nature. With nuclear proliferation, multilateral efforts were key in preventing proliferation cascades in Asia. If there were a case where the dominos should have fallen it was in North Korea. South Korea and Japan faced a direct security threat from North Korea but security assurances by the US contributed to the decision to forego proliferation.[3]

The security assistance and security cooperation portfolios for the region offer a considerable amount of leverage and maneuver space to influence KSA. The US Military Training Mission (USMTM) and the Saudi Arabian National Guard Improvement Program (PM-SANG) focus on modernizing and making KSA’s military interoperable with that of the US and other allies. Interoperability of not just equipment but also doctrine is paramount for a successful security regime in the Gulf. Modernization of KSA’s equipment comes in the form of a foreign military sales (FMS) portfolio focused on ensuring that American equipment and ideas are fielded. For KSA, recent sales have included F-15s, M-1 Abrams tanks, and AH-64 helicopters, all of which are far more advanced than Iranian systems.[4] These capabilities will allow KSA to boast their conventional capability in the event they choose a nonproliferation track. However, the instance they suggest a weaponization track, this conventional dependency on US equipment and financing creates another area for compelling KSA behavior.

Regionally, the US has taken efforts to establish a defense against medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles.[5] Kuwait purchased Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile systems while the United Arab Emirates purchased the same systems in addition to a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system.[6] These types of agreements could be extended to KSA and GCC states would champion the deal because it increases overlapping coverage of key terrain and infrastructure and the deterrent capability directed at Iran.

The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program also serves as a pressure point to influence KSA. It enhances military relationships while increasing interoperability.[7] The latest appropriation request may lead one to believe that IMET is undervalued since it was for a mere $10,000. However, this request allows KSA to take advantage of millions in discounts on their training when coupled with their FMS portfolio. Limiting IMET funding can affect the millions required for KSA to operate equipment obtained through FMS and other programs. The US could also offer additional university research exchanges. This would allow KSA to move forward with their peaceful program under the eye of the international community. KSA has plans for a peaceful program focused on electricity production to curb its dependence on oil.[8] Increasing their technical capability through education programs may serve as a carrot and avoid the proverbial stick.Another area in which the US can influence KSA is missile defense and mining. Like assurances given to South Korea aimed at influencing proliferation decisions during North Korea’s weaponization, the US can choose to increase or decrease missile defense assets in the region contingent upon KSA cooperation. Missile defense cooperation seems to have influenced states’ decisions to forego proliferation in the past and the US has a blueprint that could be applied to the Gulf. The Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) in Europe includes a myriad of systems that are present in the Gulf region or could be placed there through existing FMS or deployment cycles.

Part of the US Navy’s contribution to ballistic missile defense is the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (ABMD). It is a conglomerate of weapons, command, control, and communication systems.[9] The ABMD in the Gulf can be integrated into a PAA comparable to Europe’s.[10] Most Gulf countries have a missile defense capability but each purchased its own system with little attention to interoperability.[11] While FMS has facilitated some interoperability, a Gulf missile defense regime would enhance interoperability of existing assets. Given the threat from the Iran missile program, THAAD and PAC-3 would defend the region against limited ballistic missile attacks.[12]

While a Gulf missile defense regime is quite the carrot for KSA to weigh against the benefits they would gain by proliferating, the US does possess more vast capabilities to up the ante. Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) technology could be integrated into the regime, but do not exist in the region and would incur a hefty cost to develop and assess their efficacy at such short distances. Furthermore, the more expansive the missile defense capability in the Gulf, the more negative externalities in terms of other regional and global actor reactions will arise. Russia’s stance will be similar to their reaction to NATO and its missile defense deployments. For this reason, missile defense must be a part of the portfolio and not the portfolio itself.

While missile defense is a large part of the incentive package to influence KSA, Iran and its defense apparatus are capable of projecting other forms of power and threats while exploiting its nuclear weapon capability. Even with the current deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the lifting of economic sanctions, a weaponized Iran would face a new and more intense sanctions regime. Iran would likely express its military element of power through control over the Strait of Hormuz and influence in Gulf waters. Iran possesses an elaborate mining capability that could be used to limit exports from other Gulf countries, which in turn would have dire effects on the global economy. To mitigate this, the US could provide KSA and other regional actors with an increased anti- and counter-mining capability to counter Iranian Gulf mining operations. Four Avenger class ships, the USS Ardent, Cardinal, Dextrous, and Raven, are forward deployed to the Gulf to ensure continued access and conduct mine countermeasure missions.[13] These ships are approaching their maximum service lives and the last will retire in 2024. As the US Navy continues to upgrade and field forces such as these, including them in the FMS portfolio seems logical and using this as a means to influence proliferation decisions seems essential. While mining the Gulf affects Iran’s economy just as it does KSA’s, if Iran is suffering at the hand of a sanctions regime limiting its exports through the Strait of Hormuz, the incentive to at least limit navigability of the Strait becomes higher and expressions of power in the Gulf become greater.

Outside the Gulf, the phenomenon dubbed the Arab Spring has redrawn the lines of allegiance and restructured the power hierarchy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What were once concrete alliances; have devolved into an unknown as many countries contend with domestic issues, regime changes, and in some cases even civil war. While the dust has not settled and will continue to stir into the near future, security guarantees from dependable partners are not as concrete as they once were. New alliances are forming around new threats and the US can use this shortened shadow of the future to influence KSA by emphasizing its commitment to the Gulf through existing security assurances.

Another area that eludes most recent literature on KSA’s nuclear ambitions is that of international organizations (IOs) and US ability to influence them. US voting share alone in IOs such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank make it a formidable force. This coupled with the reality that most states with heavy voting share hold similar proliferation views enable the US to exploit its share and informal influence as a means of power to affect KSA. The US holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council giving them veto power. Each of the other permanent members is also reliant on KSA oil exports, namely China.[14] For that reason, broad multilateral sanctions are unlikely since KSA holds the position as the globe’s largest oil supplier.[15] While replication of the Iranian or North Korean sanctions regime is unlikely; the US could propose targeted multilateral sanctions akin to the Russian case.

According to recent IMF reporting, oil accounts for over 45% of KSA’s GDP, 90% of its fiscal revenues, and 80% of export revenues.[16] While there is no doubt that KSA has benefited from their oil industry, recent declines in oil prices coupled with decreased demand due to economic crises have shed light onto their dependency dilemma and how serious the results may be in the future. Targeted multilateral sanctions by importing countries would have dire effects on KSA’s economy and could lead to events seen in the rest of the MENA since 2011. KSA is a liberal economy that requires trade and openness to survive and these principles encourage nonproliferation.[17]

Economic sanctions are not the only means of coercing KSA into foregoing weaponization. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) offers another option to utilize as leverage.[18] KSA is not as self sufficient as Iran and is the Middle East’s largest consumer of oil.[19] While Iran bled for years because of sanctions and closure from much of the outside world, it was able to survive due to its multifaceted economy and ability to adapt to the sanctions regime. Rallying support for economic sanctions would be difficult because of KSA’s position in the global oil market. However, limitations on FDI would have more financial and social effects in areas such as unemployment in a growing population. Recent events in the MENA indicate that the Arab world is still in a predicament defined by unrest in large part due to socio-economic disparity and resource allocation. Pressuring KSA society by limiting FDI coupled with the above means of leverage would shift the sands of KSA domestic order.

While this article does not seek to delve deep into Israel’s reactions to KSA nuclear proliferation, it is necessary to address how the US may use Israel and its response(s). The question of nuclear cascades is daunting and when superimposed onto the MENA it becomes even more convoluted. Israel’s nuclear program operates on a strategy of nuclear amimut, or opacity.[20] However, it is accepted that Israel began its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and tested a weapon in 1979.[21] Their current policy is not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, however they are believed to have between 75-200 nuclear warheads.[22] If Israel conducted a test and is believed to possess weapons, then why has the region not seen more cascade effects? Quite simply there is more to committing to weaponization than the security dilemma that is posed by Israel or other actors.

In the event of Iranian weaponization, the US must assure KSA that it will remain committed to the region in some capacity. The security cooperation and assistance structure and the missile defense options are a step above where the US is today, but additional assurance must be given that Israel will not make significant changes to its nuclear posture or policy. This is not only in the best interest of KSA but also to the US and Israel. If Israel were to declare their nuclear weapons program and jettison the amimut strategy, the US would then have to take a stance in regards to it. The implications of this action could be catastrophic to the nonproliferation regime. Israel would become a violator of international nonproliferation norms and the US would have to choose between two polarized sides; all the while KSA would be situated between two actors that possess nuclear weapons.

Israel’s reliance on the US and other western powers puts it in a position of dependency both militarily and diplomatically. While audacious at times, Israel’s missile defense program and other critical parts of their strategy are held in the hands of external actors. The US must use its military and diplomatic leverage to keep the genie in the bottle while balancing this with KSA’s proliferation ambitions.

Policy Implications

US interests in the Middle East are plentiful and other powerful global actors share many of those interests. Issue areas such as economics, energy, international order, and security are valued by outward-looking states.[23] The existence of congruent interests among actors such as the US, France, China, and the United Kingdom makes a multilateral effort more plausible. However, given the risk of sanction busting and conflicting state interests, the US must be prepared to act bilaterally and exercise its influence on the international stage. An effectual path forward must not diverge from current US strategic and regional interests. Allocating resources to contend with KSA proliferation along with an approach that produces desired outcomes does not require drastic policy changes, rather an adjustment of current resources with minor tweaks to existing policy. This approach is critical as the US faces constraints to increase capability because of budgetary and fiscal challenges as well as domestic and political tensions. Nevertheless, strategy, while constrained by resources, must take into account the cost in blood and treasure juxtaposed to the cost of a nuclear-armed KSA and the resulting regional and global consequences.

Reliable US security guarantees have produced positive results in the past, but moving forward the US must continue to hold nonproliferation near the top of the agenda.[24] A policy of nonproliferation as a priority illustrates to other actors that the issue is being taken seriously on the international stage. Furthermore, keeping the discussion at the forefront places other capable states in a position to address the issue thereby increasing the likelihood of multilateral efforts. Current security assurances facilitate cooperation and interoperability in the Gulf but much is to be done in regards to organizing a regional security regime. The framework is in place along with the resources but increasing the level of missile defense systems in the region along with strengthening KSA conventional forces through FMS is key to influencing KSA and other regional actors. In addition to FMS, the US should increase levels of interoperability through IMET as well as university exchanges. In exchange for KSA nonproliferation guarantees, these two points of leverage provide the heart of the KSA’s defense apparatus knowledge base. Exploiting programs such as these do not require additional resources and in fact results in a net gain by the US as we benefit from FMS and reduce the inventory of dated equipment. Missile defense policy is one area that requires more of a policy shift. Gulf states possess systems capable of contending with limited medium and intermediate range ballistic missile threats but they are not coordinated nor does an effective C4ISR apparatus manage them. Naval Central and Fifth Fleet can provide an enhanced C4ISR capability that would allow for the coordination of such systems by integrating them into the regional defense plan without having to expand the US nuclear umbrella, which should be avoided at all costs. Long-term policy should address the need for an enduring means of managing systems by regional actors. As US systems become dated, inserting them into FMS for KSA and other regional actors would provide a low cost and effective C4 system.


While the above discussion is optimistic, there are many factors external to this study that play into the equation. KSA dependency on US security assurances, equipment and funding, along with missile defense requires that their proliferation decision(s) include these variables. Not weighing these costs results in a negative trade to a less capable actor, namely Pakistan, which KSA is not yet interoperable with. The economic implications of proliferation are many given KSA’s position in the global oil economy coupled with their own dependence which all play a large part in proliferation decisions. US influence within the IO regime-complex enables it to exercise a considerable amount of both formal and informal leverage with other state actors aimed at preventing proliferation cascades.

The policies and practices recommended here do not easily generalize to other cases in the nuclear issue area due to conditionality. However, the concepts of security assurance and supra-state actor influence do hold true and future research should continue to explore the correlation and causal factors associated with them. While the future of KSA and its nuclear program is open to speculation, the fact that proliferation is a continued danger to the international system is certain. For this reason, state and non-state actors must continue to seek alternative means of influencing proliferation decision while taking into account that 21st century technology jettisons the idea of nuclear have and have nots codified in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

End Notes

[1] Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton, Matthew Irvine, “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?” Center for a New American Security, (Feb 2013) and Christopher Hobbs and Matthew Moran, Exploring Regional Responses to a Nuclear Iran: Nuclear Dominoes? Basingstoke, GBR: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[2] EIA, “U.S. Imports from Saudi Arabia of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, Mar 2015.

[3] Robert S. Litwak, Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain, or Engage Regimes (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 152.

[4] Alexander Wilner, “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance,” Center for Strategic International Studies, October 27, 2011, pg 6.

[5] Lockheed Martin, Lockheed Martin Receives $308 Million Contract Modification for Production of PAC-3 Missiles, News Release, August 12, 2013.

[6] DoD Missile Defense Agency, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD),

[7] Alexander Wilner, “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance,” pg 9.

[8] Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia. World Nuclear. March 16, 2015.

[9] DoD Missile Defense Agency, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense,

[10] Alexander Wilner, “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance,” pg 108 and Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, CRS Report RL 33745, (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, March 4, 2015.

[11] Alexander Wilner, “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance,” pg 108.

[12] DoD Missile Defense Agency, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

[13] US Navy, 21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare: Ensuring Global Access and Commerce, Program Executive Office Littoral and Mine Warfare. 2009,

[14] EIA,”Country Analysis Brief: Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, Sep 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Saudi Arabia: Tackling Emerging Economic Challenges to Sustain Growth. Prepared by Ahmed al-Darwish et al., Washington, D.C.:  International Monetary Fund, 2015. (Middle East and Central Asia Department).

[17] Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[18] Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton, Matthew Irvine, “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?”

[19] EIA, ”Country Analysis Brief: Saudi Arabia.”

[20] Avner Cohen, Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb, New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press, 2010.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” Arms Control Today, June 23, 2014.

[23] Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East.

[24] Nuno P. Monteiro and Alexandre Debs, “The Strategic Logic of Nuclear Proliferation, International Security, 39, 2 (Fall 2014).


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