Even after Mubarak's son Gamal triumphantly declared at the ruling party's 2006 convention that Egypt was going to ramp up its nuclear development program, it is hard to believe that Egyptians ever really took him seriously. Mubarak spent $160 million on consultants to tell him where to build 10 planned nuclear power plants, and selected a location along the Mediterranean for the first one. But each of the power plants comes with a price tag of $1.5 billion -- and this is a country that in the last 15 months has spent approximately $26 billion of its $36 billion foreign currency reserves just to stay afloat.
One has to wonder about the pundits' warning of an Egyptian bomb: Have they even been to Egypt lately? If so, they might have a better grasp of Egypt's ramshackle infrastructure and the dire state of its economy, neither of which can support a nuclear program.
What about Saudi Arabia, then, the Sunni power that is on the tip of most analysts' tongues when it comes to Shiite Iran getting the bomb? Saudi Arabia has the cash to make large-scale investments in nuclear technology. Indeed, the only factor that makes warnings about Saudi proliferation -- such as that delivered by former Ambassador the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal last year -- even remotely credible is the resources the Saudis can muster to buy a nuclear program. Yet, while Riyadh can outfit itself with nuclear facilities with ease, it does not have the capacity to manage them. Mohamed Khilewi, a former Saudi diplomat, claims that the kingdom has been developing a nuclear arsenal to counter Israel since the mid-1970s -- but he offers no substantiated evidence to support these claims.
In fact, the country has no nuclear facilities and no scientific infrastructure to support them. It's possible that Saudi Arabia could import Pakistanis to do the work for them. But while Saudis feel comfortable with Pakistanis piloting some of their warplanes and joining their ground forces, setting up a nuclear program subcontracted with Pakistani know-how -- or even acquiring a nuclear device directly from Islamabad -- poses a range of political risks for the House of Saud. No doubt there would be considerable international opprobrium. Certainly Washington, which implicitly extends its nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia, would have a jaundiced view of a nuclear deal between Riyadh and Islamabad. Moreover, it's one thing to hand the keys to an F-15 over to a foreigner, but letting them run your nuclear program is another matter altogether.
The concern about Saudi proliferation stems from fears that the kingdom would be forced to act if both Iran and Israel possessed a nuclear arsenal. "We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't," an unnamed Saudi official declared to the Guardian on the sidelines of a meeting between Prince Turki al Faisal and NATO officials in June 2011. "It's as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit."
Yet given the fact that the Saudis have very little nuclear infrastructure to speak of, this kind of statement is little more than posturing designed to force the U.S. hand on Iran. Unlike similar warnings by Israel, which has the capacity to follow through on its threat to attack Iran's nuclear sites, Riyadh's rhetoric about acquiring nuclear weapons is empty. What is amazing is how many people take the Saudis seriously. If Khilewi had been telling the truth, now would seem like a good time for the Riyadh to give Tehran a look at what the royal family has been hiding in the palace basement all these years -- but so far, we have only heard crickets.
Despite its flimsiness, it is hard to ignore the utility of the Middle East's nuclear dominoes theory. For those who advocate a preventive military strike on Iran, it provides a sweeping geopolitical rationale for a dangerous operation. But the evidence doesn't bear this argument out: If Washington decides it has no other option than an attack, it should do so because Iran is a threat in its own right, and not because it belives it will thwart inevitable proliferation in places like Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It won't, for the simple reason that there is no reason to believe these countries represent a proliferation risk in the first place.