Nuclear eplosion
[Representational image]Creative Commons

The visit of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to the United States this week wasn't really an epoch-making one, though efforts were taken to create that impression. The Prince said many things during the visit and in the carefully choreographed run-up. But President Donald Trump summed it all up in just two words, referring to MBS as a "great purchaser".

That was a little mean, and unfair. For a fact, the young prince has shone the torch of reform in his country, and cut a new path when he said Saudi women can choose not to wear the full veil and that he wants to embrace a pre-1977 Saudi Arabia that wasn't radical.

His interview on CBS with Norah O'Donnell -- which was as much a fawning public relations piece as it was a journalistic effort -- was meant to highlight the breakthrough message of change that he would preach while in the US. But Trump, who has little taste for diplomatic niceties, swatted it all away.

"Saudi Arabia has been a very great friend and a big purchaser of equipment and lots of other things and one of the biggest investments in the United States is there – I guess it's your big investment – is buying stocks in companies and various other things in the United States and creating jobs."

Trump is more focused on 'making America great again' than on helping Saudi women drive their cars or enjoy more sartorial choices. The Prince is a valued guest as long as he buys American weapons and equipment, that's all.

When it comes to weapons deal with the US, Saudi Arabia is looking beyond conventional arsenal. It's a more militarized nation now, in the thick of an international campaign in Yemen. The military action in Yemen, which has killed more than 10,000 civilians and taken the country to the brink of a direct armed conflict with Iran, was the brainchild of MBS.

So fittingly, the high-profile visit became an occasion to look at Saudi Arabia's nuclear weapons program when the Prince openly said the Kingdom would make a nuke if Iran does so. "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," he said.

The purpose of the prince's visit was to get the US to sell it nuclear reactors that the Kingdom badly needs to overcome an energy shortage. The Saudis would bank on friend an ally US to ease conditions under the Atomic Energy Act and let a transfer of nuclear material and technology happen. The Saudis would also want to get more concessions from the US and enrich and reprocess nuclear material so that they can build a weapon at some point in future.

However, the real question is if Saudi Arabia already has dependable nuclear deterrence built into its defence plans. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has been part of the coalition that has campaigned for keeping the Middle East free of nuclear weapons. But a glance at history will reveal that the Saudis haven't been quite idle on the nuclear front.

During the heydays of the petro-dollar bonhomie, Riyadh was quite pleased to be under Washington's nuclear canopy. The meltdown of the Shah dynasty in Iran and the emergence of radical Iran fundamentally opposed to the US enshrined Saudi Arabia's client status position with the US. However, the 9/11 bombings created fissures in that relationship, prompting Riyadh to explore ways to get hold of a nuclear deterrent.

Defence grapevine has always been full of lurid details of Saudi efforts to buy nuclear warheads that they could then fit on missiles bought from China. For more than 30 years, Saudi Arabia was speculated to be working in tandem with Pakistan on the nuclear front. In fact, much of Pakistan's expensive nuclear weapons program was bankrolled by the Saudis.

Eat grass but make a bomb

As far back as 1984, Saudi Arabia sent its defence experts to the secret site in Pakistan where a nuclear weapons program was progressing under the watch of Abdul Qader Khan. Four years later, China sold the Saudis missiles with the capacity to carry nuclear warheads and reach almost every part of Middle East.

In the 70s, when Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto famously said Pakistanis would "even eat grass but make a bomb", Saudis made sure Pakistan made the bomb without having to eat grass. Hard cash was funnelled in the early years of this collaboration. When the sanctions era came, Saudis offered Pakistan free oil to circumvent the effect of punitive actions by global powers.

Despite the cordial ties between India and Saudi Arabia, Riyadh was among the early instigators who supported Pakistan in its plans to go for a counter nuclear test in 1998 in answer to India's Pokhran-II tests under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

The close collaboration between Saudi and Pakistani defence teams after the Pakistani nuclear test in 1998 made the US believe that Pakistan would give a nuclear weapon to the Saudis.

The Saudi-Pakistan bomb parlance continued in 2003 when the two countries allegedly entered into a secret agreement under which Pakistan would pass on nuclear technology and a bomb if Saudi Arabia came under a third party nuclear threat.

A leaked strategy paper from 2003 showed that Saudi Arabia was pondering over three options -- to acquire nuclear capability as a deterrent, to enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power, and reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East. With a nuclear-armed Israel on one side and Iran determined to follow suit, Saudi Arabia had little choice left.

There have also been strong rumours over Saudi Arabia's effort to get a nuclear weapon with the help of Iraq. A top Saudi diplomat who sought asylum in the US in the 90s unsheathed a trove of documents that showed the Saudis gave Saddam Hussein's Iraq about $5 billion for a nuclear weapons development program between 1975 and 90. Those were the days of Iran-Iraq war, and much before Saddam turned against his Saudi benefactors.

Dirty bomb theory

The purpose of the alleged clandestine funding of the Iraqi nuclear program was to get the bomb in return. The necessity was born out of the tumultuous early 70s when Israel was a rising threat in the Saudi backyard. However, the story of Saudi-Saddam collusion for dirty bomb did not pass the test of time, what with the unravelling of the Bush-era theory of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

No one knows for sure how close at hand is a nuclear weapon for Saudi Arabia. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NIT), the Kingdom only as an elementary civil nuclear infrastructure and doesn't have "the physical and technological resources to develop an indigenous nuclear weapons capability."

However, in 2013, BBC aired a story that said Saudi Arabia can obtain atomic bombs from Pakistan 'at will.' "Some think it is a cash-and-carry deal for warheads, the first of those options sketched out by the Saudis back in 2003; others that it is the second, an arrangement under which Pakistani nuclear forces could be deployed in the kingdom," the documentary said.

And it remains a fact that all this subterranean channels lead to China some way or the other. Pakistan's AQ Khan sourced the nuclear warhead design and key technology from a generous China. Khan was then accused of passing on this know-how to countries like Libya and North Korea.