Saudi cash joins forces with nuclear Pakistan
By Roula Khalaf, Farhan Bokhari and Stephen Fidler
Financial Times - London - August 4 2004
A week before Pakistan's maiden nuclear tests in May 1998, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif received a late night telephone call from a Saudi prince. India, Pakistan's arch-rival, had conducted nuclear tests that month and Mr Sharif was weighing the consequences of following suit.
As Mr Sharif told a hurriedly organised meeting of senior officials, the Saudi prince had offered to provide up to 50,000 barrels of oil a day to Pakistan for an indefinite period and on deferred payment terms. This would allow Pakistan to overcome the impact of punitive western sanctions expected to follow the tests.
According to a former aide to Mr Sharif, the message from Saudi Arabia, delivered on behalf of Crown Prince Abdullah, the de-facto ruler, had once again bailed out Pakistan at one of the most difficult moments in its history.
“It is possible that Pakistan may still have conducted its nuclear tests without the Saudi oil. But the tests would have been done with the knowledge that the economic fallout was going to be far more severe,” says the former aide to Mr Sharif.
The telephone call illustrated the intimacy between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a relationship that receives little international attention but has so far proved, for both sides, probably more profound and secure than any other.
A year after the tests, Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, visited the uranium enrichment and missile assembly plant at Kahuta, then run by the now disgraced Pakistani scientist Abdul-Qadeer Khan. He thus became the first foreign official known to have visited a Pakistani nuclear research facility.
Saudi financial support has fuelled suspicions of nuclear co-operation between the two countries. A senior US official says Saudi finance helped fund Pakistan's nuclear programme, allowing it among other things to buy nuclear technology from China.
Officials discount the possibility of Pakistani help to build an indigenous Saudi nuclear weapon: Saudi Arabia does not appear to have the necessary technical infrastructure. But they say there could be a sort of “lend-lease arrangement” that would allow weapons from Pakistan to be made available to Saudi Arabia. “The argument that they have options on Pakistan's arsenal are more likely,” the US official says.
Both Saudi and Pakistani officials vehemently deny the existence of any such deal. “We've never given money aimed at nuclear research and development and so we never asked or received privileges to nuclear weapons programmes,” insists Prince Turki al-Feisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief who worked closely with Pakistan in the 1980s to channel Arab militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Nawaf Obeid, a Saudi security consultant close to the government, however, suggests the kingdom enjoys Pakistan's security umbrella without any formal agreement. “We gave money and they dealt with it as they saw fit,” he says of the Pakistanis. “There's no documentation but there is an implicit understanding that on everything, in particular on security and military issues, Pakistan would be there for Saudi Arabia.”
Though some security analysts doubt Pakistan would jeopardise its own security by jumping to Saudi Arabia's defence, the relationship has been thrown into sharp focus again in recent months with the uncovering of a clandestine nuclear network led by Mr Khan. This sent investigators in search of the so-called “fourth customer” beyond the three to which Mr Khan confessed: Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Diplomats close to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency say Mr Khan had tried to find customers all over the Middle East but they have yet to find evidence to implicate a fourth country.
So far, there is no suggestion that Saudi Arabia purchased nuclear equipment or expertise from the Khan network. But the network's ability to outsource important elements of a nuclear weapons programme would make it easier for any country even one without much technical infrastructure to start weapons development.
To be sure Saudi Arabia has plenty of reasons and the financial muscle to seek nuclear weapons. Saudis live in a dangerous environment, surrounded by rivals. They include Israel, whose undeclared nuclear arsenal Saudi Arabia criticises as the main block to a nuclear-free Middle East, and Iran, Saudi Arabia's strategic competitor suspected by western governments of developing nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was considered a close friend of Saudi Arabia, Iraq's military strength was seen as protection for the Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Gulf against the ambitions of a revolutionary Shia regime in Iran.
After Mr Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, however, Iraq became the main threat in the Gulf and the Saudis called on the US for protection. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, gradually improved over the past decade, though remain beset by suspicion.
Nearly all US troops stationed in the country since then were withdrawn last year following the removal of Mr Hussein's regime, leaving a few advisory and support units. Political ties with the US also became strained in the backlash from the September 11 attacks, carried out by mostly Saudi militants.
“Saudi Arabia is in strategic limbo with the US security commitment being called into question or being redefined and with Iran's nuclear programme,” said Wyn Bowen, a lecturer in war studies at Kings College, London.
Against this troubled background, the link with Pakistan has become all the more important. “It's probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty,” says Prince Turki, now ambassador to London. “Just the fact there's a friendly voice heard from time to time is very pleasant in today's world,“ he adds.
Reports of Saudi nuclear ambitions have been around since the 1970s in spite of the consistent rejections by the government. In 1975, according to one report, Saudi Arabia opened a nuclear research centre in a desert military complex, later closing it down.
In 1986-88, Saudi Arabia bought 30 or more intermediate-range DF-3 Chinese missiles, a type used by Beijing to carry nuclear weapons. Both Chinese and Saudi officials said they were adapted to carry conventional warheads, even though their inaccuracy would make them ill-suited for this purpose. In response to US pressure following the purchase, Saudi Arabia signed the non-proliferation treaty and legally foreswore nuclear weapons.
These obsolete missiles may soon have to be replaced. Robert Einhorn, a senior arms control official in the Clinton administration, said Saudi Arabia's missiles came up in US discussions aimed at curbing Chinese sales of long-range missiles in the autumn of 2000. China wanted, he said, to be able to fulfil some pre-existing servicing arrangements. “It became clear they were talking about Saudi Arabia,” he said.
In 1994, a Saudi defector who worked for the kingdom's United Nations mission claimed the Saudi government had paid up to $5bn to Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear weapon and provided funds to Pakistan in return for security guarantees. A visit to Pakistan last year by Crown Prince Abdullah also fed rumours of a new nuclear deal but the allegations were dismissed by the US State Department.
Saudi officials say the country's leaders always considered the acquisition of nuclear weapons a taboo that would bring the kingdom more controversy than comfort. Last year, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, senior princes considered a strategic paper that offered them three options: to acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent, maintain or enter into an alliance with a nuclear power that would offer protection, or work to rid the region of banned weapons. Prince Turki insists the paper “died in its place”.
Mr Einhorn says that, in fact, there is little hard evidence that Saudi Arabia is pursuing the bomb: “It's like a suspected crime where you have a motive but not much more than that.”
Over the years, however, Saudi Arabia's ties with Pakistan gained strength and the discreet but deep inter-dependency has kept suspicions of nuclear co-operation alive.
Rooted in co-operation between military generals and intelligence operatives, the relationship survived repeated political upheavals in Pakistan. The two countries also have been drawn together by religious ties: the Saudis, custodians of Islam's two holiest sites, have been eager to protect a country, also governed by Sunni Muslims, that was born on the basis of its religion. Moreover, the kingdom has also poured money into religious schools - madrasas - spreading its puritanical brand of Wahabi Islam throughout Pakistan.
“When Pakistan was formed (after the 1947 partition from India) we were losing Palestine. So it seemed in public minds that the establishment of a Muslim state out of a colonial past was somehow a recompense for the losses of the Muslim world in Palestine,“ says Prince Turki.
Saudi officials say Pakistan probably received more Saudi financial aid - which started in the 1960s - than any other country outside the Arab world. In return the Saudis received military and diplomatic assistance. In the 1960s, Pakistani instructors were dispatched to Saudi Arabia to train Saudis on the use of newly acquired British aircraft. In the 1970s, an agreement was reached with Pakistan to second 15,000 military personel to the kingdom. They pulled out in 1987, an era of depressed Saudi oil revenues.
“When we had a large military contingent deployed in Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani government happily noted that the payments for keeping our troops there helped us to pay for a part of our defence,” says a former senior Pakistani military officer who served in Saudi Arabia. “The principle of our relationship is that the Saudis would not let Pakistan sink”.
In the 1980s and 1990s the two countries found common cause in arming the Arab fighters who helped drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal and Afghanistan's descent into civil war, both the Saudis and the Pakistanis favoured the Taliban militia which emerged from the Wahabi religious schools in Pakistan.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani analyst on defence and national affairs, says Saudi Arabia paid for a batch of 40 F-16 fighter aircraft bought by Pakistan in the 1980s from the US for approximately $1bn. “Not only did the Saudis pay for the aircraft but they also lobbied for Pakistan with the US government,” he says. “The Saudis have played a critical role for Pakistan. Consequently, that has won them tremendous influence in Islamabad”.
Ali Awadh Asseri, the Saudi Ambassador to Islamabad for almost four years, is widely seen as one of the most influential diplomats in Pakistan, though major policy discussions are carried out directly between key officials and leaders in Riyadh and Islamabad.
“Asseri has the kind of access to the Pakistani president and the prime minister which few other ambassadors receive. Maybe the US ambassador falls in the same category” adds Dr Rizvi.
Such is Saudi influence in Pakistan that Saudi officials, including the ambassador, also play a mediating role in Pakistani politics. A year after Pakistan's nuclear tests, Mr Sharif was removed from office in a bloodless military coup and then sentenced to life imprisonment on a controversial charge of ordering the hijacking of a Pakistani airliner.
But he found himself exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2002 for a 10-year period, under a deal struck between General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, and the Saudi regime. The deal assured a life of comfort for the former Pakistani leader and saved him from the prospect of a long jail term. “The Saudis may not have the ability to change Pakistan's strategic profile in that they don't have a military which can support Pakistan and they're not an arms supplier. But they have the means to make things happen,” says Teresita Schaffer, head of the south Asia program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.