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A nuclear Saudi Arabia?

Updated February 23, 2019

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The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

COINCIDING with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan, a big story breaking in the US, and which seems not to have got much traction here, relates to a report by House Democrats that the Trump administration is pushing to build nuclear power plants all over the kingdom.

According to a new House Democrats report, quoted by the New York Times along with dozens of other headlined reports in the Western media, this effort by the administration has come despite vociferous objections by White House lawyers that such a move would fly in the face of existing US laws.

Apart from violating US law, there are serious concerns about how these deals are unethical too as they enrich key allies and supporters of the Trump administration. The New York Times report emphasised that:

“The report is the most detailed portrait to date of how senior White House figures — including Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s first national security adviser — worked with retired military officers to circumvent the normal policymaking process to promote an export plan that experts worried could spread nuclear weapons technology in the volatile Middle East. Administration lawyers warned that the nuclear exports plan — called the Middle East Marshall Plan — could violate laws meant to stop nuclear proliferation and raised concerns about Mr Flynn’s conflicts of interest.

Saudi Arabia has made no bones about its desire that its future plans for development have to be sustainable and delinked from its vast oil reserves.

“Mr Flynn had worked on the issue for the company promoting the nuclear export plan and kept pushing it once inside the White House.

“But even after Mr Flynn was fired, the proposal appears to have lingered. The initial discussions took place during the chaotic early months of the Trump administration, according to the 24-page report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee, but House Democrats ... cited evidence that ... the White House was still considering some version of the proposal. Democrats said they had begun a full-scale inquiry.”

Other major players cited in the accounts are another Flynn associate as well as businessmen with close ties to the Trump administration and the Middle East, and last, but not the least, the influential Trump son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner who is said to be a personal friend of the Saudi crown prince as well.

As recently as in the aftermath of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Kushner was said by sections of the US media to have counselled the prince on how to handle the storm.

This planned transfer of sensitive nuclear technology first came into the public view in 2017 when a whistleblower is understood to have brought the information to Congressman Elijah Cummins but the Republican House committee chairman refused to entertain it.

With the Democrats having gained control of the House of Representatives after the latest electoral exercise, the matter has been put before the committee now and members are determined to examine all aspects including what violations of law have taken place.

Saudi Arabia has made no bones about its desire that its future plans for development have to be sustainable and delinked from its vast oil reserves and it is looking at alternative means of energy including wind, solar and now nuclear.

But it will be inevitable given regional tensions and rivalries that any Saudi acquisition of nuclear power will not be seen in isolation from what else is happening particularly where Iran’s nuclear programme is concerned. Saudis see themselves locked in a zero sum-game with the Iranians.

Former US president Obama’s administration worked with a group of world powers to agree to a deal with Iran, capping the country’s pursuit of possible nuclear weapons and described it as a big development, given how much ground needed to be covered before the deal could be signed.

But Trump and hard liners such as his national security adviser John Bolton were not happy with that accord and have unilaterally rejected it, even moving to re-impose sanctions on Tehran that had been lifted following the earlier deal as the concerns about Tehran’s nuclear programme had been allayed.

With the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE now seemingly on the same page regarding Iran and seeking to curtail its influence in the Gulf, and with some reports suggesting an even graver objective such as regime change, the region appears set for considerable turbulence.

One can be grateful that Pakistan has time and again reiterated that it was determined not to take sides in that conflict and if it saw any role for itself it was solely mediatory in nature in order to bring Muslim states together.

When in the tenure of the PML-N government Pakistan parliament refused to take part in the Yemen conflict there was no masking the unhappiness among our friends in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with one minister in Abu Dhabi vocalising the displeasure in almost non-diplomatic language.

The dramatic turnaround in Islamabad’s relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has clearly one main driver and that is the change in attitude in the latter’s key ally and backer Washington ever since Pakistan seems to have persuaded the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

The Trump administration has been open about its desire to pull out its troops from Afghanistan and any assistance towards that goal will be rewarded via third parties if that can be the only way. Looks like a win-win for Islamabad as any Taliban return to power-sharing in Kabul will be seen as a plus here.

Meanwhile, given the recent spike in warmth between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, experts will continue to ascertain if, apart from the pledge to safeguard the two Holy mosques and the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan remains a neutral party.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2019