The context to the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear relationship

On Tuesday, the BBC’s Mark Urban cited a ‘a senior Nato decision maker’ who ‘had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery’, and that this reporting was based on ‘Israeli information’. I am largely sceptical of this latest reporting, not least because Saudi Arabia has every incentive to play up this issue as nuclear diplomacy with Iran advances. Julian Borger has a good piece to that end.

Nevertheless many people are unfamiliar with the extent of security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. David Kenner yesterday reported that Saudi Arabia sought Pakistani assistance in training two brigades of Syrian rebels, although it was earlier reported by Yezid Sayigh that Pakistan had been ‘reluctant or unable to meet a previous Saudi request to provide special forces training’.

But the relationship goes back a long way. Pakistan assisted the Royal Saudi Air Force to build and pilot its first jet fighters in the 1960s, and Pakistani personnel flew Saudi aircraft during a Yemeni cross-border war in 1969.[i] In subsequent decades, as many as 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, ‘some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border’.[ii] In 1986, Pakistan’s Saudi presence comprised one division (roughly 13,000 troops), two armoured and two artillery brigades (approximately 10,000 troops), along with naval and air force personnel.[iii] Pakistani forces reportedly ‘fill[ed] out most of the 12th Saudi Armored Brigade’ based at Tabuk.[iv] This brigade reportedly left in 1988, after Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan send only Sunni personnel.[v] It is unclear how many Pakistani personnel remain in Saudi Arabia, but Pakistan does provide assistance and personnel to Bahrain and to other GCC members for internal security.[vi]

For a fuller account of this and the nuclear dimension to the relationship, I look at the issue in some depth in my RUSI Whitehall Paper on Iran Permanent Crisis, available here. A short extract of the relevant pages is available here (PDF).

[i] Nadav Safran, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 202.

[ii] Bruce Riedel, ‘Saudi Arabia: Nervously Watching Pakistan’, Brookings Institution, 28 January 2008.

[iii] C Christine Fair, ‘Has the Pakistan Army Islamized? What the Data Suggest’, Working Paper 2011-13, Mortara Center for International Studies, Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, September 2011.

[iv] Anthony H Cordesman, Western Strategic Interests in Saudi Arabia (London: Taylor and Francis, 1987), p. 139.

[v] C Christine Fair, Pakistan: Can the United States Secure an Insecure State? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010), p. 121. Thomas Lippman claims that the forces left because ‘oil prices hit historic lows and the Saudis could no longer afford them’; see Thomas W Lippman, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy’, Middle East Institute Policy Brief No. 5, January 2008, p. 8.

[vi] Mujib Mashal, ‘Pakistani Troops Aid Bahrain’s Crackdown’, Al Jazeera, 30 July 2011.


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