For years the greatest concern anyone had about nuclear power in the Middle East was how it might lead to Iran acquiring atomic weapons. Nowadays it is two of the region’s Arab monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that are the focus of debate.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the issue is the risk of proliferation of fissile materials. Across the border to the east, the UAE’s well-advanced nuclear energy scheme has become yet another facet of a bitter diplomatic rift with former ally Qatar.
Over recent months it has been the Saudi plans which have been causing most concern in Washington. Like many oil-rich countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is keen to diversify its domestic energy supplies, not least so it can sell more of its oil and natural gas overseas. As a result, it has been toying with the idea of building nuclear power plants for more than a decade.
A string of ambitious schemes have been announced and then quietly forgotten over the years, but these days there are signs that the plans might at last come to fruition. In September last year, energy, industry and mineral resources minister Khalid Al-Falih said studies were under way on potential sites for the country’s first nuclear plants. Earlier this month, the country’s nuclear agency, known as King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, launched a programme to train Saudis in uranium exploration and mining.
U.S. firms have been courting the Riyadh government for the contracts to build the nuclear plants and supply the technology, often with the strong support of the White House. Figures in or close to the administration of President Donald Trump have been pushing to do a deal on nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia for several years. Some of those efforts (and the concerns they have prompted) were set out in a recent report issued by Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform.
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However, Riyadh appears to be extremely resistant to the idea of signing up to the sort of controls the U.S. usually insists on with any nuclear energy deal. These are set out in Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (and are thus generally known as 123 Agreements) and, among other things, would restrict Riyadh’s ability to mine and enrich its own uranium reserves and reprocess spent fuel rods.
Saudi resistance to a 123 Agreement has alarmed many in Washington and a number of senior politicians have warned the White House not to allow U.S. nuclear technology to be exported to Saudi Arabia without the proper controls in place.
There have long been rumors that Saudi Arabia has an understanding with Pakistan to supply nuclear weapons and some now wonder if Riyadh might want to develop its own atomic bombs.
The fears about Riyadh’s long-term intentions were heightened in May last year when its unpredictable Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told CBS that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
Last month a bipartisan group of senators in Washington introduced a resolution aimed at holding Riyadh to a 123 Agreement. “Saudi Arabia has repeatedly shown that it cannot be trusted as a responsible partner in the global community,” said one of the resolution’s sponsors, Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Jeff Merkley. “If Saudi Arabia is going to get its hands on nuclear technology, it’s absolutely critical that we hold it to the gold standard for non-proliferation.”
The arguments over the UAE’s nuclear plans are, for now at least, more parochial in nature and are linked to the wider dispute between an alliance of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar on the other.
The UAE and its allies have imposed a trade and travel boycott on Qatar since June 2017, in retaliation for what they claim is Doha’s support for terrorist groups and interreference in their domestic affairs (charges that Doha firmly denies).
In the latest element of that dispute, Qatar has written to the UN's nuclear watchdog the IAEA to raise concerns about the UAE’s nuclear power activities – it is building a fleet of four reactors at Barakah with the help of a South Korean consortium, with the first reactor due to start up next year.
According to a Reuters report, Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to IAEA director general Yukiya Amano to claim the UAE's plants pose a threat to regional stability and the environment and it has asked the UN agency to develop a framework to ensure the safe operation of nuclear energy in the Gulf.
Qatar claims any accidental discharge from the UAE plant could send radioactive material to Doha within 5-13 hours and that any radiation leak would have a devastating effect on water supplies, given the region's reliance on desalination plants. It also says the technology being used at the plant is relatively untested, as only one other reactor of this type is in operation.
The UAE has firmly rejected the Qatari claims. In a statement issued on March 20, the UAE’s permanent representative to the IAEA Hamad Ali Al-Kaabi said his country adheres to “the highest standards of nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation.”
He pointed out that the UAE’s nuclear infrastructure has been subject to regular peer-review missions over the past decade and added “the UAE does not believe that there is any concern regarding the safety of its nuclear power plant.”
The issues over the Saudi nuclear plans – and, to a lesser extent, those of the UAE – have in many ways eclipsed the debate over Iran’s formerly controversial activities.
A nuclear deal signed by Iran and seven other world powers to great fanfare in July 2015 was designed to put a stop to concerns that Tehran was trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability (something it has always denied), while still allowing it to develop nuclear power stations; Iran has a Russian-designed nuclear power plant at Bushehr on the Gulf coast which it is currently expanding.
A sign of the success of the nuclear deal is that the U.S. government now focuses its criticism on Iran's missile programme and its alleged destabilizing activities in the region, rather than on the nuclear issue specifically.