London's Guardian newspaper reported Thursday that top-level officials in Riyadh are considering three options: acquiring nuclear capability as a deterrent, allying with an existing nuclear power, or trying to reach a regional agreement for a nuclear-free Middle East.
However, a crisis is brewing over Iran's alleged nuclear program.
Until now, the U.S. has assumed that Saudi Arabia was content to remain under the American nuclear umbrella. However, the relationship has worsened steadily since the Sept. 11 attacks, since 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi.
The Guardian reports it is not known whether Saudi Arabia has made a decision on any of the three options. Just the consideration worries experts.
United Nations officials and nuclear arms analysts point to the worries about an Iranian nuclear program and to the absence of any international pressure on Israel, which has an estimated 200 nuclear devices.
"Our antennae are up," a senior U.N. official told the paper. "The international community can rest assured we do keep track of such events if they go beyond talk."
Saudi Arabia does not regard Iran, a past adversary with which Riyadh has restored relations, as a direct threat. But it is unnerved by the possibility of Iran and Israel having nuclear weapons.
Riyadh is also worried about a string of apparent leaks in American newspapers from the U.S. administration critical of Saudi Arabia.
David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he doubted whether the Saudis would try to build a nuclear bomb, instead preferring to try to buy a one. If so, that would make Saudi Arabia the first of the world's eight or nine nuclear powers to have bought rather than built the bomb.
U.N. officials say indications are Saudi Arabia might turn to Pakistan. In 1988, Saudi Arabia bought intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching any part of the Middle East with a nuclear warhead from China.
"There has always been worries that the Saudis would go down this path if provoked," said Albright. "There is growing U.S. hostility which could lead to the removal of the U.S. umbrella and will the Saudis be intimidated by Iran? They've got to be nervous."
Said a U.N. official, "there's obviously a lot of restlessness in the Middle East. Regional insecurity tends to produce a quest for a nuclear umbrella. The Saudis have the money and could provide it to Pakistan."