Saudi Ara­bia’s bluff

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - FA­REED ZAKARIA com­ments@fa­reedza­karia.com

Of the many un­nerv­ing as­pects of the fu­ture of the Mid­dle East, a nu­clear arms race would top the list. And to feed that un­ease, Saudi Ara­bia has been pe­ri­od­i­cally drop­ping hints that, should Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions go unchecked, it might just have to get nu­clear weapons it­self. Last week, the Saudi am­bas­sador to Lon­don made yet an­other ex­plicit threat, warn­ing that “all op­tions will be on the ta­ble.”

Oh, please! Saudi Ara­bia isn’t go­ing to build a nu­clear weapon. Saudi Ara­bia can’t build a nu­clear weapon. Saudi Ara­bia hasn’t even built a car. (By 2017, af­ter much ef­fort, the coun­try is ex­pected to man­u­fac­ture its first au­to­mo­bile.)

Saudi Ara­bia can dig holes in the ground and pump out oil but lit­tle else. Oil rev­enue is about 45 per­cent of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, a stag­ger­ingly high fig­ure, much larger than petro-states such as Nige­ria and Venezuela. It makes up al­most 90 per­cent of the Saudi gov­ern­ment’s rev­enue. De­spite decades of mas­sive gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment, lav­ish sub­si­dies and cheap en­ergy, man­u­fac­tur­ing is less than 10 per­cent of Saudi GDP.

Where would Saudi Ara­bia train the sci­en­tists to work on its se­cret pro­gram? The coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is back­ward and dys­func­tional, hav­ing been largely handed over to its pu­ri­tan­i­cal and re­ac­tionary re­li­gious estab­lish­ment. The coun­try ranks 73rd in the qual­ity of its math and science ed­u­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum— abysmally low for a rich coun­try. Iran, de­spite 36 years of sanc­tions and a much lower per capita GDP, fares far bet­ter at 44.

And who would work in Saudi Ara­bia’s imag­ined nu­clear in­dus­try? In a pen­e­trat­ing book, Karen El­liott House, for­merly of the Wall Street Jour­nal, de­scribes the Saudi la­bor mar­ket: “One of ev­ery three peo­ple in Saudi Ara­bia is a for­eigner. Two out of ev­ery three peo­ple with a job of any sort are for­eign. And in Saudi Ara­bia’s ane­mic pri­vate sec­tor, fully nine out of ten peo­ple hold­ing jobs are non-Saudi. . . . Saudi Ara­bia, in short, is a so­ci­ety in which all too many men do not want to work at jobs for which they are qual­i­fied; in which women by and large aren’t al­lowed to work; and in which, as a re­sult, most of the work is done by for­eign­ers.”

None of this is to sug­gest that the king­dom is in dan­ger of col­lapse. Far from it. The regime’s fi­nances are strong, though public spend­ing keeps ris­ing and oil rev­enue has been de­clin­ing. The royal fam­ily has deftly used pa­tron­age, pol­i­tics, reli­gion and re­pres­sion to keep the coun­try sta­ble and qui­es­cent. But that has pro­duced a sys­tem of stag­na­tion for most, with a gilded elite surf­ing on top with al­most unimag­in­able sums of money.

Saudi Ara­bia’s in­creased as­sertive­ness has been por­trayed as strate­gic. In fact, it is a pan­icked and emo­tional re­sponse to Iran, fu­eled in no small mea­sure by long-stand­ing anti-Shi­ite bigotry. It is pique mas­querad­ing as strat­egy. In Oc­to­ber 2013, af­ter hav­ing spent years and mil­lions of dol­lars cam­paign­ing for a seat on the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, it de­clined the post at the last minute, sig­nal­ing that it was an­noyed at U.S. pol­icy in its re­gion.

Its most re­cent in­ter­na­tional ac­tivism, the air cam­paign in Ye­men, has badly back­fired. Bruce Riedel, a for­mer top White House aide, says that dam­age to civil­ians and phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture “has cre­ated con­sid­er­able bad blood be­tween Ye­me­nis and their rich Gulf neigh­bors that will poi­son re­la­tions for years. Ye­me­nis al­ways re­sented their rich broth­ers, and now many will want re­venge.” He notes that the air cam­paign is be­ing di­rected by the new de­fense min­is­ter, the king’s 29-year-old son, who has no ex­pe­ri­ence in mil­i­tary af­fairs or much else.

But couldn’t Saudi Ara­bia sim­ply buy a nu­clear bomb? That’s highly un­likely. Any such ef­fort would have to take place se­cretly, un­der the threat of sanc­tions, West­ern re­tal­i­a­tion and in­ter­cep­tion. Saudi Ara­bia de­pends heav­ily on for­eign­ers and their firms to help with its en­ergy in­dus­try, build its in­fra­struc­ture, buy its oil and sell it goods and ser­vices. Were it iso­lated like Iran or North Korea, its eco­nomic sys­tem would col­lapse.

It is of­ten claimed that Pak­istan would sell nukes to the Saudis. And it’s true that the Saudis have bailed out Pak­istan many times. But the gov­ern­ment in Islamabad is well aware that such a deal could make it a pariah and re­sult in sanc­tions. It is un­likely to risk that, even to please its sugar daddy in Riyadh. In April, Pak­istan re­fused re­peated Saudi pleas to join the air cam­paign in Ye­men.

So letme make a pre­dic­tion: What­ever hap­pens with Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, 10 years from now Saudi Ara­bia won’t have nu­clear weapons. Be­cause it can’t.

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