Jeffrey Lewis writes: Fareed Zakaria has written a predictably buzzy article suggesting that, whatever Saudi officials might say, Riyadh is simply too backward to build a nuclear weapon. “Whatever happens with Iran’s nuclear program,” Zakaria writes, “10 years from now Saudi Arabia won’t have nuclear weapons. Because it can’t.”
While I don’t think it is terribly likely that Saudi Arabia will choose to build nuclear weapons, I think it is deeply misguided to conclude that Saudi Arabia (or pretty much any state) cannot do so. Simply put, Zakaria is wrong — and it’s not all that hard to demonstrate why.
Zakaria isn’t explicit about what he believes to be the technical requirements for building a nuclear weapon, but he clearly thinks it is hard. Which was probably true in 1945 when the United States demonstrated two different routes to atomic weapons. Since then, however, the technologies associated with producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium have been developed, put to civilian use, and spread around the globe. The fact that most states don’t build nuclear weapons has a lot more to do with restraint than not being able to figure it out.
Zakaria’s argument that Saudi Arabia can’t build nuclear weapons is pretty shallow and relies largely on two assertions: a flip comment about Saudi Arabia lacking even a domestic automotive industry, and a superficially data-driven claim about Saudi Arabia’s “abysmal” math and science ranking.
First, automobile production is a terrible indicator of whether a state can build a nuclear weapon. The technologies are really not at all similar — or at least they don’t have to be. India, Pakistan, and North Korea all succeeded in building nuclear weapons despite not having much of an auto industry at home. And the Soviets were really good at building nuclear weapons, even though their cars famously sucked.
And, anyway, Saudi Arabia is investing in a domestic auto industry. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry is hoping the Meeya will be on the market by 2017. So, there’s that.
More importantly, Saudi Arabia is investing in a civil nuclear industry. “Where would Saudi Arabia train the scientists to work on its secret program?” Zakaria wonders. Oh, I don’t know, how about the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy? Somehow Zakaria never mentions that Saudi Arabia is building a dedicated city for training nuclear scientists. I can’t predict whether this investment will pay off, but then again neither can Zakaria — if he even knows it exists. [Continue reading…]