Reuters: Fearing Shi’ite Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states are warning they will not hesitate to join a rumbling regional arms race, analysts say. By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH, Dec 14 (Reuters) – Fearing Shi’ite Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states are warning they will not hesitate to join a rumbling regional arms race, analysts say.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups Arab countries in the world’s top oil and gas exporting region, said at a summit meeting on Sunday that it has decided to set up a nuclear energy programme for peaceful purposes.
The announcement by the six countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman — came amid concerns in the West and in the Gulf that non-Arab Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme could produce an atomic bomb.
Israel, which has its own nuclear reactor, has long been suspected of possessing nuclear weapons, and Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to admit as much for the first time in a television interview on Monday.
“I think the GCC is serious,” said Adel al-Harby, political editor for leading Saudi daily al-Riyadh. “It’s clear from the context the region is involved in a nuclear race.”
Robin Hughes, deputy editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said: “(The Saudis) said they don’t want bombs, but proliferation of any kind of nuclear technology raises the spectre of some sort of nuclear arms race.”
While emphasising the Gulf plan was for peaceful purposes, GCC Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman al-Attiya appeared to use coded language, saying it came at an “important time”.
“The project comes at an important time,” he told Saudi al-Ikhbariya television in an interview aired on Wednesday.
“Now with this project, according to international standards and in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) … I think we’ve put ourselves on the right footing, especially since this is for peaceful use,” he added.
SUNNI FEAR OF SHI’ITE POWER
Saudi Arabia, a bastion of Sunni Islam with the prestige of being the world’s biggest oil exporter and home to Islam’s holiest shrines, is worried about the growing influence of Iran in the Arab world through Tehran’s backing for Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon and its alliance with Syria.
Long fearful of a resurgent Iran, Gulf countries backed Iraq against Iran during the 1980-88 Gulf war. A key U.S. ally, Riyadh signalled earlier this year that a nuclear Iran would provoke a regional arms race.
So far, Sunni Pakistan is the only Islamic country with the bomb and its relations with Saudi Arabia are close. With Iran in mind, Riyadh is already boosting its military strength.
Gulf officials have given no indication on whether the nuclear plan, aimed at water desalination, could involve enrichment. Diplomats at the IAEA in Vienna said that was unlikely, but that the political message was still there.
“If the GCC states just want nuclear power reactors, that’s no problem. No state has ever used power reactors to yield nuclear weapons,” a senior diplomat close to the IAEA said.
“No one can give a definitive answer on the motivation of the GCC, but I don’t think it’s too difficult to understand,” another said. “With Iran defiant and … Israel defiant … it’s only logical that the other states of the region would feel threatened.”
The IAEA believes at least six Arab countries are developing domestic nuclear power programmes to diversify energy sources, the Middle East Economic Digest reported last month.
It said Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria have shown interest in developing nuclear power primarily for water desalination. Similar plans by the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia were only at an early stage.
But analysts said the political hurdles facing a joint Gulf Arab energy programme, while the GCC even struggles to unite for for a planned monetary union in 2010, were still immense.
“Where will it be, in Saudi Arabia or the UAE? How would they protect it? Who would get the proceeds from it?” Hughes said. “And I don’t think anybody has considered the safety issue in Saudi Arabia, which is essentially a fairly unstable place.”
Al Qaeda militants launched a violent campaign to bring down the Saudi monarchy in 2003, targeting foreigners, oil installations and government buildings.
(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna)