Home to the fifth-largest natural gas reserves and sixth-largest oil deposits in the world with a population the size of New York City, at first glance the United Arab Emirates does not seem an obvious candidate to spend billions to split the atom for energy.
With its Barakah nuclear power plant coming online last month, the UAE has become the first Arab country to successfully pursue civilian nuclear power – and the first in a line of fossil fuel-rich Arab states scrambling to go nuclear.
The UAE and its neighbors say civilian nuclear energy is critical to lowering their dependency on gas and oil, and the UAE’s 2009 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States has been hailed in Washington as a “gold standard” for pursuing civilian nuclear power.
Yet concerns remain over nuclear proliferation and the potential for an arms race in a region wracked by political divisions and little transparency. That leaves the U.S. to play a pivotal role to ensure its Arab allies’ pursuits remain peaceful – and within its ability to influence.
Of the countries in the region, perhaps the one of most concern to the U.S. is its longtime yet opaque ally, Saudi Arabia, which is determined to follow the UAE and become the second Arab state with nuclear power.
With China and Russia making overtures to Saudi Arabia, Washington is trying to win over and convince Riyadh to follow the Emirates’ peaceful path at a time Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has vowed to pursue a nuclear weapon should Iran do the same.
The U.S. is embroiled in talks with the kingdom to enter a nuclear cooperation agreement that would allow it to benefit from U.S. technology and expertise.
Saudi Arabia says its intentions to build 16 nuclear reactors across the country by 2040 are meant to free up its domestic oil production for exports abroad – to China, India, and others.
Ambiguity ... and clarity
Yet the Saudi energy program is shrouded in ambiguity, even confusion. Saudi rulers have shuffled the program between various government and royal agencies as it has stumbled to get off the ground, with few technical advancements.
Concerned observers and veteran diplomats point to statements made by the crown prince during his visit to the U.S. in March 2018 that left no room for similar ambiguity over Saudi intentions should Iran pursue a nuclear weapon.
“Without a doubt, if Iran ever developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible,” Crown Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview.
“Given Mohammed bin Salman’s statements and [Saudi Arabia’s] refusal to sign protocols on uranium enrichment, we cannot rule out the program being used for military reasons,” says Antonino Occhiuto, analyst at the U.S.-based Gulf States Analytics.
“Saudi Arabia has substantial quantities of uranium in their soil, which would allow them to develop a noncivil nuclear program if they choose to.”
Given these sentiments, China’s courting of Saudi Arabia and the ongoing uranium exploration and mining activities of a state-owned Chinese company in southwest Saudi Arabia, one of several extraction “collaborations,” have triggered alarm in Washington.
A Wall Street Journal report last month called the Chinese uranium exploration in the southwest part of a project for a yellowcake mill.
In response, members of Congress petitioned the State Department for “information regarding the People’s Republic of China’s reported transfers of nuclear and missile technology to Saudi Arabia.”
Multiple bills introduced this year require regular reports on Saudi nuclear efforts.
“On the surface, this is not a nefarious enterprise, and the alarm is inappropriate,” says Mark Hibbs, senior fellow at Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program.
“But in a situation in the Mideast where we have all these ambiguities, a legacy of clandestine nuclear activity, coupled with provocative statements by the Saudi Arabian government, it is only natural for people to ask whether these investments and projects have a nefarious intent.”
Who do you want to partner with?
As a consequence, the U.S. Department of Energy, Congress, and the State Department are all pushing Saudi Arabia to follow the example of the UAE, which surrendered its right to extract, enrich, or process uranium as part of its cooperation agreement.
The UAE has met all the stringent requirements, which observers call “the highest nonproliferation standards in the industry.” Its South Korean-built 1,400-megawatt Barakah reactor is the first of four reactors that are planned to provide 25% of the electricity needs of a tiny country that has seen its demand for electricity increase 150% over the past decade.
The UAE says its nuclear energy is to power its desalination and complement its growing solar energy sector.
U.S. officials say they are “comfortable and confident” that the Emiratis' abidance by the strict nonproliferation safeguards will prevent the military use of nuclear materials and technology.
But the Saudis have been resistant to follow suit, and talks have stalled for years, even under a Trump administration close to the crown prince and eager to strike a deal that would allow American companies to take part in the Saudi nuclear project.
Saudi sources close to decision-makers say Riyadh insists it has a “natural sovereign right” to extract and process uranium from its own soil to fuel its peaceful nuclear energy program and sell abroad.
China, meanwhile, has attempted to win over Riyadh with low-cost nuclear technology with few strings attached.
With lower nonproliferation standards and transparency, Chinese-Saudi cooperation would allow Saudi Arabia to pursue nuclear energy without the safeguards desired in Washington.
“We are keenly aware of the fact that other governments, specifically the Russians and Chinese, use their lower nonproliferation standards as an economic advantage,” says a State Department official with knowledge of the nuclear file.
In response, while insisting on its nonproliferation standards, the U.S. is highlighting to any Arab state considering pacts with Beijing or Moscow that the development of nuclear energy “is not just an economic relationship, [but] a strategic and political relationship.”
“The message we are providing to these governments is: Who do you want to be partners with over the next quarter-century to half-century?” the official says. “Our hope is that these governments will recognize that in the long run their security and political interests are much better served to partner with Washington.”
The mere presence of nuclear reactors in a Gulf region wracked with tensions, divisions, and asymmetrical warfare could be a security threat.
The UAE will be shipping enriched uranium fuel and radioactive waste through the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, narrow shipping lanes between Gulf states and Iran that have recently witnessed acts of sabotage and are a flashpoint of U.S.-Iran tensions.
And just last year, a series of crude drones struck at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO oil processing facilities, causing immense damage and bringing Saudi oil production offline.
Missiles from neighboring Yemen fall onto Saudi territory on a regular basis, even striking the capital, Riyadh. Iran-backed proxies across Yemen and even Iraq have entrenched ballistic missiles pointed at Gulf cities and sites as a defensive line should Tehran feel threatened.
Already in 2017, Houthi rebels claimed to have fired a missile at the then-under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant, a claim the Emiratis have denied, insisting their air defense system is “capable of dealing with any threat of any type or kind,” says Paul Dorfman, senior research fellow at the University College London Energy Institute and former adviser to the British government on nuclear plant decommissioning.
“Recent military strikes on Saudi infer that the region is still very volatile. There really is no parallel elsewhere in the world,” he says. “The idea of Iran sending missiles into Saudi or Emirati nuclear facilities – what would happen then?”
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