King Salman bin Abdulaziz
King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi ArabiaReuters

Saudi Arabia is said to have taken the "strategic decision" to acquire "off-the-shelf" nuclear weapons from ally Pakistan, senior US officials told the Sunday Times.

Sunni Arab states are increasingly concerned of the repercussions of a deal currently being negotiated between world powers and Shi'ite rival Iran, which they fear may still be able to develop a nuclear bomb.

The deal being negotiated between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany would see the Shi'ite nation curb its sensitive nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

"For the Saudis the moment has come," a former US defence official told the Sunday Times last week.

"There has been a long-standing agreement in place with the Pakistanis and the House of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward."

'This stuff is available to them off the shelf'

Another US official working in intelligence told the paper that "hundreds of people at [CIA headquarters] Langley" were working to establish whether Islamabad had already supplied the Gulf nation with nuclear technology or weaponry.

"We know this stuff is available to them off the shelf," the intelligence official said, adding that it "has to be the assumption" that the Saudis have decided to become a nuclear power.

"We can't sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research," an Arab leader preparing to meet Obama told the New York Times on Monday (11 May).

The sentiment was shared by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal, who told a recent conference in South Korea: "whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too."

The right to enrich uranium

If inked the deal will leave 5,000 centrifuges and a research and development programme in place — features that are highly contested by Israel and Arab states.

By allowing Iran to retain the right to enrich uranium, the deal may inadvertently increase nuclear proliferation in the region, by providing justification for other Middle Eastern countries to match Iran.

Saudi Arabia has financed substantial amounts of Islamabad's nuclear programme over the past three decades, providing Pakistan's government with billions of dollars of subsidised oil while taking delivery of Shaheen mobile ballistic missiles.

"Given their close relations and close military links, it's long been assumed that if the Saudis wanted, they would call in a commitment, moral or otherwise, for Pakistan to supply them immediately with nuclear warheads," former Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen told the Sunday Times.

A senior British military officer also told the paper that Western military leaders "all assume the Saudis have made the decision to go nuclear."

"The fear is that other Middle Eastern powers — Turkey and Egypt — may feel compelled to do the same and we will see a new, even more dangerous, arms race."

Lt.Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who helped develop Pakistan's nuclear program, denied Islamabad had ever sent nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia or any other country in recent comments.