Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions continue to inch closer to realization. The U.S. Department of Energy revealed this week that the Trump Administration had approved a total of seven permits pertaining to the transfer of nuclear expertise to the Middle Eastern kingdom. The ties between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Riyadh counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have always raised eyebrows, but this time politicians from both parties are irked.
One reason is the timing of the permits, called 810 authorizations. The first was approved only two weeks following the murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Following international outcries, Mohammed bin Salman eventually accepted responsibility for the killing which took place at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but continues to insist it was an accident. Only a few months before that event last October, the crown prince was on a world tour including two weeks in the U.S. courting business magnates and politicians alike.
During a stop at the White House last March, Trump and the Mohammed bin Salman discussed a host of issues including Iran and human rights, but mostly the business relationship between the kingdom and U.S. weapons manufacturers. $400 billion worth of purchases was pledged by Saudi Arabia, a staggering number that Trump boasted about during a press gathering. The president made a point to associate the arms with benefits to the U.S. economy.
“We’re talking about over 40,000 jobs in the United States,” Trump said.
Whether that number is statistically accurate or not, there is no slowing down the flow of U.S. technology and expertise to Riyadh. Trump’s cozy business relationship with the kingdom has faced unprecedented scrutiny, not only on the suspicion of backdoor arrangements, but also due to both Khashoggi’s murder and Saudi involvement in the Yemen Civil War.
Both houses of Congress passed a historic War Powers Resolution in April to curtail U.S. involvement, legislation which Trump promptly vetoed.
While U.S. weapons sales were on the rise even before he assumed office – U.S. weapons exports rose 30 percent during 2013-2017 over the previous five-year duration – Trump has been emboldened by unchecked power. With his own party holding power in the Senate, veto power over any binding legislation that does happen to pass, and emergency powers that Republicans refuse to rein-in, Trump’s administration practically taunts any notion of corruption investigations with deals between Washington and Riyadh. Take for instance Westinghouse Electric Company: the nuclear company declared bankruptcy in 2017 yet the company that bought it out, Brookfield Asset Management, spent $1 billion to rent a Manhattan property owned by Jared Kushner. Perhaps coincidentally, Trump met with the company in February.
Westinghouse’s bankruptcy was pinned on failed nuclear reactor deals in the United States. It just so happens there’s another place welcoming nuclear installations with open arms: Saudi Arabia.
In 2011, the late King Abdullah devised a plan to construct 16 reactors in the kingdom with the stated goal of using it to supply energy for his country. At that time, his country’s oil exports were steadily on the rise, hitting record highs for the decade, but Abdullah declared that the kingdom should use less and export more. While the plan was later downscaled to only two reactors, Riyadh has continued its pursuit.
Naturally this has furrowed some eyebrows across the international community because while nuclear energy can certainly power a nation, it can also lead to the development of nuclear weapons. According to Mohammed bin Salman, it is not a current goal of Saudi Arabia, but in the event that Iran develops its own nuclear weapons, Riyadh would do so as well.
Saudi Arabia’s advancement towards potentially becoming a nuclear state could certainly hinder any discussions with Iran. Trump recently cancelled the Iranian nuclear deal and imposed harsh sanctions that are beginning to cripple the Iranian economy. Thus far, diplomatic discussions have yet to resume, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have both spoken publicly about their willingness to meet.
Surely when they do, the Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, a longtime adversary of Iran, will be called into question. A nuclear Saudi Arabia, should it go down that path, would make it the first Middle Eastern state to develop its own weapons. Presently, Israel is only thought to have the capability with no official determination. The closest neighbors possessing nuclear arms are India and Turkey, which is a part of NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing program enabling it to possess them, but not develop their own.
Mohammed bin Salman has not shied away from ambitious pursuits to transform his nation. At times these have been markedly positive, such as permitting women to drive and allowing cinemas. However, the manner by which he is pushing Saudi Arabia to regional dominance has the potential to harm even the economics of its neighbors. For instance, Riyadh rallied some of the gulf countries to end all relations with Qatar over its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. In today’s world, Saudi Arabia has the power to accuse and punish other states for supporting terrorism, a sobering notion. With nuclear capabilities, it would have ultimate regional dominance and Trump seems perfectly content with this as long as the money continues to flow.
The U.S. Congress has limited options at its disposal to break up the Washington – Riyadh relationship, and Trump has proven he can circumvent just about anything it throws his way. While the 810 permits do not allow the transfer of equipment or technology, only expertise, it’s the first sign that the romance has entered a new stage and it has the power to disrupt Iranian negotiations and regional stability, to say nothing about the continuing humanitarian conflict in Yemen.
One form of recourse that House of Representatives might try is to place conditions within its annual national defense budget, or even refuse to pass the annual National Defense Authorization Act entirely. This military funding legislation must be renewed for the Department of Defense to continue operations.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi hasn’t publicly admitted to considering the option yet, but her spokesperson said that any options available to Congress would be considered to end U.S. involvement in Yemen. Until then, a group of seven senators from both parties will hold votes of disapproval for 22 individual weapons transactions with Saudi Arabia. Although the votes have no binding power, they will publicly rebuke the continued support of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and staunch Trump supporter, has even added his support for the measure.
Saudi Arabia can obtain nuclear technology and know-how from a number of other states including China and Russia, so preventing it from obtaining the technology is perhaps impossible. It doesn’t have to be with U.S. support, however, and certainly not at a time when it is suffocating Iran for having a fully-IAEA compliant nuclear program.