Even if the Camp David Summit for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders turns out to be a mere “marketing tool” — as coined by Abdul Rahman Al Rashid in Arab News — to compensate for the long anticipated Iranian nuclear framework agreement, Saudi Arabia is probably poised to embark on a nuclear programme of its own, notwithstanding US President Barack Obama’s talents to dissuade Riyadh from such a course. Simply stated, few Gulf leaders trust Washington today, in light of what many perceive as deliberate American decisions that harm conservative Arab monarchies and jeopardise their future.
In a prescient 2001 essay published in Survival titled ‘A Saudi Nuclear Option?’, Richard L. Russell argued that “regional and international rivalries and insecurities compel nation-states to undertake efforts to safeguard their core national interests”. Given the lack of confidence in the US, which was dramatically exacerbated by the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of a deal with Iran, now scheduled for the end of June 2015, Washington should not overestimate the Saudi reluctance to jump through every hoop for its protection. In fact, as the acquisition of Chinese-made CSS2 ballistic missiles revealed in April 1988, Riyadh pursued its own interests then, just as it is likely to do so today. To be sure, Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies wished to maintain close ties with the US and they would most likely want to purchase additional weapons to defend themselves from perceived threats, though what they would really like to receive are American assurances that their countries would not be subjected to the vagaries of putative “equilibrium” policies that, according to Obama, would restore stability to the region.
This was the crux of serious disagreements that GCC leaders harboured as most rejected rhetorical preferences uttered along the banks of the Potomac. All were livid and remain incredulous that the Obama administration opted to play the role of a mere spectator in the post-2011 period — in contrast to more robust interventions in earlier times — especially in such places as Syria and Yemen. Few understand why Washington would tolerate significant Iranian enhancements throughout the region. Even fewer failed to comprehend stale arguments as hundreds of thousands perished and more are likely to die, while challenged leaders toyed with imaginary red lines — all in the name of amorphous equilibriums.
Of course, Obama forcefully argued that there were limits on what America could actually do and that Sunni Arab regimes ought to assume some of the burdens of regional threats instead of concentrating on their own sectarian tendencies. This, Obama posited in the past and probably re-emphasised at Camp David, was preferable to American boots on the ground, especially since muscular deployments failed to eliminate homegrown political instability throughout the Gulf region. GCC rulers, for their part, underscored their own views as they retorted that their largest challenge stemmed from Iran, not any “dissatisfaction within their own countries”.
It was in this context that GCC rulers raised the ante. Aware that while Iran was a major neighbour with which they must coexist and forge critical ties to avoid long-term tensions, few were willing to return to the Shah’s era where hegemony was a matter of fact. Unlike the Shah’s Iran, which was satisfied with its immediate surroundings, Revolutionary Iran harboured an expansionist religious ideology that was deeply involved in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Gaza, Yemen, Sudan, topped with publicly declared geographical claims that placed Iran’s borders on the Mediterranean Sea in Lebanon courtesy the Hezbollah militia.
To its credit, Saudi Arabia refused to abide by these latest diktats, as it insisted on reciprocity. What is good for the goose (Iran), its leaders argued, ought to be good for the gander (GCC). In fact, whatever agreement is reached by the end of June with Iran, and even if Washington reiterated its “nuclear umbrella” proposal to protect GCC states, Gulf leaders insisted on ironclad commitments that went beyond clever marketing explanations.
In mid-2015, Riyadh was deeply concerned about Iranian hegemony, and while the record was not entirely bleak as the American commitment to Gulf security was long-standing, senior Saudi leaders anticipated strategic changes that, naturally, preoccupied them. That was why few should be surprised that Saudi Arabia’s nascent nuclear programme, a civilian effort in the planning stages, would become a reality and grow.
Although King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz abolished the modest King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy when he acceded the throne on January 23, 2015, he supported the 2011 programme to build 16 civilian reactors, which means a nuclear power infrastructure will become a reality that, over time, will have military aspects too. At Camp David, Obama will try to persuade Saudi Arabia to rely on it for protection, even if Riyadh will counter that it feels obliged to have a nuclear weapon too, especially if Washington’s “equilibrium” policies lead Iran to join the nuclear club first.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.