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Saudi Arabia’s push for nuclear power risks further destabilizing the region and beyond

The Saudis appear to be abandoning an agreement they made with the Bush administration that they would not pursue enrichment and reprocessing.

Analysis | Reporting | Middle East

Every so often over the past three decades, news reports or government statements have stirred speculation that Saudi Arabia is trying to acquire or develop nuclear weapons.

In the latest episode, articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times this month indicated that Saudi Arabia is working secretly with China to develop industrial facilities in which it could process its domestically mined uranium ore into nuclear fuel.

Saudi Arabia wants nuclear fuel. The kingdom’s often-stated official position is that the entire Middle East, including Iran and Israel, should be a zone free of nuclear weapons, but civilian nuclear power is another matter. Saudi Arabia is committed to the development of civilian nuclear energy because its consumption of oil to generate power is reducing the amount of oil available for export. Exported oil remains the lifeblood of the Saudi economy, but the government is acutely aware of models and forecasts showing the lines between domestic consumption and export capacity crossing before mid-century.

Saudi Arabia for many years has overtly operated a nuclear research center, aimed in part at enhancing the ability of Saudi scientists to handle radioactive material and master the process of uranium enrichment. The government’s Saudi National Atomic Energy Project says on its website that “Uranium is one of the important elements in Peaceful uses of nuclear energy … as a Nuclear fuel used for energy production and water desalination. Saudi Arabia has Uranium resources that can be used to produce nuclear fuel for future National power reactors and for uranium international market.”

The Saudis argue that it makes little sense to buy enriched uranium from the United States or other countries when they can use their own ore, and expand their non-oil economy, by operating their own ore-extraction and enrichment plants.

In theory, of course, it is possible to develop civilian nuclear power plants without any link to weapons, as Japan, South Korea and other countries have done. In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, a combination of possibly suspicious developments and occasional intemperate statements by senior officials — most recently by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — has fostered international suspicion.

In perhaps the best-known example, the United States discovered by accident in 1988 that Saudi Arabia had secretly acquired from China a fleet of nuclear-capable intermediate range ballistic missiles. Shocked by the Saudis’ apparent duplicity, the Reagan administration bludgeoned the kingdom into a deal: Saudi Arabia could keep the missiles, which had no warheads, without further pressure from Washington provided that it sign and abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Saudis had previously refused to do that on the grounds that Israel had not signed it.

A decade later, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, then the defense minister, received a rare tour of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities, raising suspicion of a deal by which the Saudis could obtain nuclear weapons on demand from Pakistan in exchange for financing Pakistan’s weapons program. No evidence of any such arrangement has ever surfaced.

In purely military terms, the Saudis might perceive a certain allure to nuclear weapons. They live in a dangerous neighborhood where Israel has nuclear weapons and Iran has a program theoretically capable of developing them. Their conventional armed forces, while well equipped, have little combat experience.

But in reality, the negative political and economic consequences for Saudi Arabia if it went down the nuclear weapons road would far outweigh any possible strategic gain. As a party to the NPT, Saudi Arabia would face powerful economic sanctions from the United Nations and many individual countries if it violated its commitments under that treaty. The kingdom has staked its future on full integration into the global economy; it cannot afford to be cast out as a nuclear outlaw, like North Korea. (India, Pakistan, and Israel have not faced such sanctions over their nuclear weapons because they are not signatories to the NPT.)

Already, Germany has given the Saudis a strongly-worded warning: “The German government’s critical stance on nuclear power is well known. It is of central importance that Saudi Arabia fully complies with its NPT obligations and that its nuclear program is subject to the international verification standards (‘safeguards’) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” the foreign ministry said in a statement issued last week in response to the recent news articles. Other industrialized nations are sure to take similar positions.

Moreover, any sign that Saudi Arabia was pursuing nuclear weapons would violate longstanding commitments to the United States and put an end to its privileged status in Washington. On George W. Bush’s last visit to Riyadh as president, in 2008, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Prince Saud al-Faisal, then foreign minister, signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” on civilian nuclear cooperation that proclaimed “the shared commitment of both Participants to maintaining the highest standards of nuclear non-proliferation, safety, and security.”

In that document, the Saudis affirmed their intent “to rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel services as an alternative to the pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing.” In exchange, the United States would allow them to purchase whatever enriched uranium they needed for peaceful purposes.

Saudi Arabia and the United States for years have been negotiating over a nuclear cooperation agreement — known as a “123 agreement” for the section of U.S. law that requires it — that would permit such an arrangement go into effect. Upon signature of a 123 agreement, the United States would, as it promised in that 2009 MOU, sell enriched uranium, reactor technology, and other supplies and services for a civilian nuclear program.

The U.S. has been asking that the Saudis accept what is known as the “Abu Dhabi model” or “gold standard” of 123 agreement, like the one with the United Arab Emirates. The UAE, which recently started up its first nuclear power plant, agreed to forgo both ends of the nuclear fuel cycle — the UAE will neither enrich its own uranium nor reprocess its spent fuel.

If the Saudis insist on enrichment, they will probably foreclose the possibility of a 123 agreement with the United States, which would require them to obtain all their equipment and technology elsewhere — France, perhaps, or Russia, which built Iran’s first plant, or China.

But beyond that, if clear evidence emerged that Saudi Arabia was pursuing not just enrichment capability but actual weapons, the reaction in Congress would be strongly negative, probably to the point of barring further Saudi purchases of U.S. weapons. Under any president other than Donald Trump, the Saudis would lose access to the American training that has molded their military and security forces for nearly half a century.

In addition, any suggestion that Saudi Arabia was pursuing nuclear weapons would put the kingdom on Israel’s target list — just as the United States told the Saudis it would when the Chinese missiles were discovered.

“I want to congratulate you,” then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage told the Saudi ambassador at the time. “This is the law of unintended consequences. You have put Saudi Arabia squarely in the targeting package of the Israelis…If the balloon goes up anywhere in the Middle East, you are going to get hit first.”   

“Israel cannot remain indifferent to accelerated nuclear developments in Saudi Arabia,” Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies said in an analysis of the recent Times and Journal reports. Saudi Arabia and Israel have been moving away from confrontation and toward cooperation or at least tolerance for several years. The Saudis have nothing to gain by undermining that process. And with their hands full in dealing with Yemen and Iran, the Saudis can ill afford to pick a fight with Israel that they would surely lose.

At the “Nuclear Security Summit” convened by President Barack Obama in 2010, the Saudi representative, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, declared that “Security and stability cannot be established in any region through endeavors to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” Do the Saudis still believe that?

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
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