When it comes to America's allies in the Middle East, Washington has long "looked the other way" while they recklessly pursue questionable weapons technology. Think Pakistan's nuclear program at a time when the Reagan administration prioritized fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, or Israel's estimated 100 to possibly 200 undeclared nukes.
This has more recently been the case with Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom has long been rumored to pursue nukes to gain dominance over Shia rival Iran. And now this willful looking the other way on banned weapons is coming back to bite Washington hard.
"Saudi Arabia has constructed with Chinese help a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, an advance in the oil-rich kingdom’s drive to master nuclear technology, according to Western officials with knowledge of the site," The Wall Street Journal writes in a bombshell investigative report.
So this is where US foreign policy has arrived: no, there's no yellowcake in Niger and never was, but we now have America's global rival China helping our Sunni Wahhabi 'ally' construct a secret nuclear site while lying about it all along. Despite mounting evidence, the Saudi Energy Ministry issued a statement saying it “categorically denies” that it's built an extraction facility.
However, there was this admission out of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman back in 2018: he said at the time “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
The Saudis maintain they are only in pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program, which happens to be Iran's same position as well.
The WSJ identified the location based on intelligence sources and unnamed Western officials as in a desert area outside al-Ula in northwest Saudi Arabia. "The facility, which hasn’t been publicly disclosed, is in a sparsely populated area in Saudi Arabia’s northwest and has raised concern among U.S. and allied officials that the kingdom’s nascent nuclear program is moving ahead and that Riyadh is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons," WSJ continues.
Currently it's public knowledge that The China National Nuclear Corp. and the China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp., which signed memorandums of understanding with the Saudi government in 2017 for uranium exploration, are working closely with Riyadh.
The new reports suggest these are instrumental in assisting with the secret nuclear facility.
Saudi Arabia has built a secret facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, Western officials say, a step forward for Riyadh's nascent nuclear program. It happened with a little help from their friends in Beijing.@wstrobel @mgordonwsjhttps://t.co/exkL9rgTsc
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) August 5, 2020
Given the US has invaded at least one Mideast country on false charges it had Yellowcake Uranium in its possession, it'll be interesting to see if there's even so much as a statement of public censure directed at Riyadh out of the administration. We won't hold our breath, given it seems such condemnations are reserved only for the likes of Assad or Gaddafi or the Iranians.
But now that China has apparently entered the mix, things could get sticky, even with Washington's closest Gulf ally the Saudis.
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The United States didn't only look away when France was helping Israel build its Dimona nuclear facility and its nuclear bomb but it did also do so when Pakistan was building its nuclear bomb with help from China.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on record saying openly in 2018 that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”.
The United States fabricated stories about Iraq pursuing the nuclear bomb and even seeking yellowcakes from Niger, an African country that has never ever mined uranium to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003 which I always called the 21st century’s first oil war. America won the military battles with its overwhelming military power but lost the war to China and Iran.
Iran is on the way to building a nuclear bomb. And if Iran builds a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia and the UAE won’t be far behind. How could the US expect to persuade Iran to relinquish its nuclear programme when America has acquiesced to India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. The US even went further and signed a nuclear partnership pact with India.
However, if the United States wants to pursue a nuclear-free Middle East, it has first and foremost to persuade Israel to relinquish the nuclear warheads that it has. The problem is that the United States does not want Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. Even if it does, the US has no power to force Israel to give up its weapons and Israel will never succumb to pressure from anyone. And therein lies the rub.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London