Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions and Proliferation Risks

by Sarah Burkhard, Erica Wenig, David Albright, and Andrea Stricker

March 30, 2017

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Executive Summary and Recommendations

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has an uneasy relationship with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which went into effect in January 2016, has limited Iran’s sensitive nuclear program and subjected it to greater international monitoring. Many hoped that the JCPOA would also ease regional security tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, yet they have actually increased despite the deal. The JCPOA has also not eliminated the Kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons, but rather reduced the pressure on Saudi Arabia to match Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities in the short term. In that sense, the deal has delayed concerns about nuclear proliferation in Saudi Arabia.

However, there is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails. If Iran expands its enrichment capabilities, as it states it will do, Tehran will reduce nuclear breakout times, or the time needed to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, to weeks and then days. With these concerns, the Kingdom is likely to seek nuclear weapons capabilities as a hedge. A priority of the administration of Donald J. Trump is to prevent Saudi Arabia from developing such capabilities, in particular acquiring reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. The administration’s stated commitment to better enforce and strengthen the JCPOA provides a sounder foundation to achieve that goal.

Saudi Arabia has little nuclear infrastructure today, and acquiring nuclear weapons is a difficult process for any country. At this point in time and at its current pace of nuclear development, Saudi Arabia would require years to create the nuclear infrastructure needed to launch a nuclear weapons effort. Our open source research, which includes translations from Arabic of official Saudi statements, nuclear infrastructure plans, and domestic research, shows that Saudi Arabia is not likely to have launched any domestic covert nuclear programs to create the wherewithal to build nuclear weapons. Instead, like other cases of proliferant states and territories, such as South Africa, Iran, and Taiwan, it appears that Saudi Arabia is concentrating on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure. It is acquiring nuclear or nuclear-related facilities and committing to placing them under international inspections according to international norms. Saudi Arabia has thus far embarked on a path to seek civil nuclear assistance from several nations, including Russia, South Korea, and China. It is also researching civil nuclear applications and developing a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce.

Any research on the weaponization of nuclear material would of course be cause for international alarm, as it was in the case of Iran and its secret program to develop a nuclear weapon. However, preventing proliferation in Saudi Arabia should focus first on preventing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, even in the absence of work on a nuclear weapon. Nuclear suppliers should reach consensus on not exacerbating security concerns in the Middle East by agreeing not to sell Saudi Arabia sensitive fuel cycle capabilities. Moreover, Western governments should enhance their efforts to monitor, detect, and prevent the illicit spread of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities to Saudi Arabia.

A major uncertainty in this analysis is the nuclear relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Although reports that Pakistan has promised Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons appear inaccurate, some level of agreement relating to nuclear cooperation appears likely.

Based on other proliferation cases, unresolved, chronic security concerns can foster nuclear weapons development. For many cases, only the resolution of such concerns led to the avoidance of nuclear weapons. Thus, in the long term, diplomatic and other initiatives should be aimed at regional threat reduction efforts to prevent Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations from seeking nuclear weapons. Perhaps more important, remedying the relatively short-term nature of the Iran deal’s nuclear constraints is critical in preventing Saudi Arabia from building a nuclear weapons capability over the next five to 15 years.

Key Findings

  • Saudi Arabia is in the early stages of nuclear development. Saudi Arabia does not possess much nuclear material. It has a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which entered into force in 2009. That CSA has an old model Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which holds certain reporting responsibilities in abeyance until nuclear material inventory exceeds one effective kilogram or the Saudis have a nuclear facility such as a reactor. At that time, Saudi Arabia will need to negotiate subsidiary arrangements, including facility attachments, which will specify in more detail the reporting requirements and inspection arrangements. As of early 2017, Saudi Arabia has neither power nor research reactors, nor are any under construction. The general belief in the nonproliferation community is that Saudi Arabia is a nuclear ‘newcomer.’

  • It is unclear at this point whether Saudi Arabia will sign and ratify the Additional Protocol to its CSA.

  • As of 2016, there is no evidence of technical research or development of the production of fissile material, namely highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium. However, a European government official confirmed to our Institute in 2014 that the pursuit of scientific and engineering expertise necessary to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle is ongoing in Saudi Arabia.

  • Saudi Arabia appears genuinely committed to importing many nuclear reactors and has pursued numerous cooperation agreements with other countries. The country’s declared nuclear focus is on peaceful applications of nuclear energy, affordable power plants, desalination reactors, and environmental protection. According to recent plans, it intends to install over 16 nuclear reactors during the next few decades. This nuclear development program is expected to remain strictly civilian in nature, focused mainly on deploying nuclear power reactors for generating electricity and desalinating sea water. However, it appears on a trajectory to create domestic appendages that could provide a nuclear weapons capability, even if for some time these capabilities would likely be under international safeguards. The conditions necessary for Saudi Arabia to operate unsafeguarded nuclear facilities or leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to build nuclear weapons appear onerous today. The disincentives far outweigh the incentives for such a path. However, this could change depending on the fate of Iran’s nuclear program.

  • As Saudi Arabia moves towards the operation of nuclear reactors, it will have to revise its safeguards agreements and replace the SQP with a CSA. It is unclear at this point whether Saudi Arabia will also ratify the Additional Protocol.

  • Saudi Arabia has conducted at least one feasibility study on its “involvement in all stages of the nuclear power generation cycle.” According to this study’s results, using Saudi Arabia’s natural uranium deposits to enrich uranium is among the feasible options.

  • Although there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia is currently seeking to acquire or build uranium enrichment or reprocessing plants, this could change as its nuclear infrastructure develops and regional tensions fester. Once it establishes its knowledge and industrial base over the next five to 10 years, however, Saudi Arabia will be in a more favorable position to decide on building fuel cycle capabilities, albeit under safeguards. A former IAEA inspector interviewed for this paper judged that Saudi Arabia may seek such technologies in as soon as five years.

  • Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of the NPT appears to include a view of what some have called a “right to enrich.” The country has not taken advantage of nuclear energy assistance from the United States, possibly because U.S. reactor purchases would need a signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) stating that Saudi Arabia would “not pursue sensitive nuclear technologies,” which include enrichment and reprocessing.

  • Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in developing an indigenous capability to manufacture nuclear reactors. KA.CARE, the national agency at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear agenda, has identified several steps within the nuclear fuel cycle as having high potential for local manufacturing, including fuel fabrication, processing, and enrichment. Going beyond the import of technologies, Saudi Arabia appears to have intentions to acquire intellectual property rights and become an exporter of small modular reactors (SMRs).

  • Saudi Arabia appears to have a domestic supply of uranium sufficient for a small-scale, clandestine nuclear weapons program. However, Saudi Arabia has not yet mined or processed any uranium from its domestic sources.

  • Overlooked by many experts evaluating Saudi Arabia’s nuclear future is the fact that the country’s nuclear workforce is increasing at a rapid pace in both quality and quantity. The academic nuclear engineering sector is growing substantially, constantly launching new graduate programs and expanding Saudi Arabia’s five nuclear research centers. Already in 2014 Saudi Arabia considered it had a “high” comparative advantage in “operations and maintenance” of nuclear reactors and a “medium” advantage in other relevant steps.

  • The bulk of its published nuclear research is of a theoretical, rather than experimental nature, and it does not involve significant quantities of uranium or other nuclear material. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is pursuing front-end nuclear fuel cycle research, such as studies on the extraction of uranium from ore.

  • The growth of its academic nuclear energy sector in past years emphasizes the Saudi ambition to modernize and equip the future generation with technical nuclear capabilities.

  • Saudi Arabia is highly invested in medical applications of nuclear science, such as gaining hands-on experience with nuclear reactions and housing at least five hot cells of unknown size. Hot cells over a certain size are of concern because they could be used in small-scale plutonium separation or irradiated fuel reprocessing experiments. In the case of Iran, hot cells exceeding six cubic meters are banned unless expressly allowed by the executive body of the JCPOA, and allowed ones are subject to IAEA monitoring. Regardless of the size of the Kingdom’s hot cells, Saudi Arabia does not currently have any irradiated fuel (or targets) it could use in such experiments. Nonetheless, learning more about these hot cells and limiting the size of any future ones makes sense. In addition, the IAEA should report to member states on its knowledge of these hot cells.

  • Official statements by Saudi Arabian officials suggest a commitment to acquire nuclear weapons, or at least advanced nuclear fuel cycle capabilities, in the event that Iran’s nuclear program is not adequately constrained by the nuclear deal. Recent statements indicate that officials are for now content with the temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capabilities brought by the JCPOA. The opinions of society and prominent Saudi analysts are mixed.

  • Under the JCPOA, restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program start to conclude from year 10 to 15 of the deal’s implementation (or in the period 2026-2031), and Saudi Arabia may again come to fear a renewed Iranian nuclear threat. This threat could be viewed as greater than prior to the agreement due to the international legitimization of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities under the JCPOA, in particular. If the JCPOA ends prematurely, Iran’s actions and those of the United States and UN Security Council to constrain Iran will likely dictate whether the nuclear program is seen as a threat that Saudi Arabia must match.

  • It is likely that Saudi Arabia did not pursue nuclear weapons capabilities following the IAEA’s discovery of Iran’s covert nuclear programs in 2003. The exact reasons why are uncertain, but part of the rationale appears to be that the international community refused to legitimize Iran’s enrichment program and instead enacted United Nations Security Council and other unilateral and regional sanctions against Iran. Those actions may have discouraged Saudi Arabia from seeking uranium enrichment technologies out of concern of being stigmatized and possibly subjected to international pressure and sanctions. However, Saudi Arabia’s concerns over the Iranian program likely contributed to its decision to pursue nuclear energy projects on a large scale as part of a hedging strategy.

  • Unfortunately, the ability of the international community to detect potentially small-scale proliferation-relevant research and development by any nation is questionable, including today in Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia has no major nuclear facilities, the IAEA’s familiarity with its research and procurement efforts is limited.

  • An on-going concern is that Saudi Arabia may plan to receive nuclear assistance from Pakistan. The Institute uncovered evidence that the assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing. An unanswered question is whether Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program.

  • Saudi Arabia secretly purchased a controversial set of ballistic missiles from China in the 1980s, the DF-3 missiles, which can carry nuclear weapons. The United States detected the purchase after the fact. They appear to remain operational.


  • When Saudi Arabia brings into full application its CSA with the IAEA, it should also sign and ratify the Additional Protocol.

  • Western national intelligence capabilities should focus on the detection of proliferation-relevant Saudi research and development, as well as procurements which could signify covert, or even overt, nuclear fuel cycle development or interest in nuclear weaponization.

  • The United States should reaffirm that it is a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia, even while expressing concern about troubling regional and domestic actions, such as its intervention in Yemen and violations of human rights. Doubts about the United States’ commitment to assisting the Kingdom’s security should nevertheless be removed as part of this policy.

  • The United States should make clear to Saudi Arabia in private conversations that its pursuit of uranium enrichment or reprocessing, whether in Saudi Arabia or abroad, would threaten the U.S. defense commitment to Saudi Arabia and destroy it if the Kingdom seeks nuclear weapons. This U.S. policy should happen in parallel with efforts to strengthen and extend, or make permanent, the nuclear limitations of the JCPOA.

  • All nuclear suppliers should condition the sale of reactors to Saudi Arabia on a prohibition of domestic reprocessing and enrichment, despite the difficulties of doing so at such a late date.

  • The United States and its partners should work diplomatically to discourage the sale of advanced fuel cycle capabilities to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. As part of that effort, the United States should initiate an effort to guarantee enriched uranium fuel supplies to Saudi nuclear reactors. Although a private U.S. initiative to do so has not succeeded so far, the U.S. government should initiate an effort among reactor suppliers to create an ensured international fuel supply for Saudi and other Middle Eastern countries’ reactors. This effort should focus on providing enriched uranium fuel and avoiding mixed (plutonium/uranium) oxide (MOX) fuel.

  • Equally, discussions need to be held with countries that are not members of the NSG, such as Pakistan and India, to discourage them from selling advanced nuclear technology and capabilities to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan should be pressed not to conduct any nuclear activities for Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan or abroad.

  • A priority is the strengthening of the JCPOA, particularly by better enforcing the deal and extending the duration of the major nuclear limitations. This would prevent a renewed crisis in which Saudi Arabia would be expected to pursue advanced fuel cycle capabilities. A strengthening of the JCPOA would need to mitigate the impact of renewed Iranian enrichment on Saudi threat assessments.

  • In the absence of the JCPOA, UN Security Council resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program would ostensibly fall back into place. The United States and the international community would need to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program does not present a renewed threat to Saudi Arabia by enacting additional sanctions against Iran and instituting containment and deterrence measures, among other actions.

  • Regional Middle East tensions must be addressed and threat reduction efforts developed more broadly.  

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