Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Nuclear Programme: Undying Ambition

Riyadh is developing the Saudi nuclear programme despite concerns about the regional proliferation of nuclear weapons and a possible nuclear arms race.

Saudi Nuclear Programme
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud attends the 43rd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 09, 2022. Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Anadolu Agency via AFP.

Khaled Mahmoud

Saudi Arabia has recently been developing its nuclear programme to meet its growing energy needs. Riyadh is pursuing the programme despite concerns about the regional proliferation of nuclear weapons and a possible nuclear arms race.

The controversy surrounding Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme resurfaced when Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, announced Riyadh’s intention to use its domestically-sourced uranium to build up its nuclear power industry. He noted that recent explorations had revealed a diverse portfolio of uranium in the Kingdom, the world’s top oil exporter.

He added, “The Saudi national atomic energy project has two major components. The first is building nuclear power reactors, which include two large commercial nuclear power reactors. The second is trying to exploit our uranium resources.”

Preliminary studies indicate that Saudi Arabia possesses approximately 60,000 tons of uranium ore, which they plan to extract to achieve self-sufficiency in nuclear power production.

Uranium enrichment is a highly sensitive matter, as enriched uranium can be used in the production of nuclear weapons. For nuclear reactors to operate efficiently, the uranium fuel must be enriched to 5 per cent; however, the same technology could also be employed to enrich uranium to higher percentages for military purposes.

It is widely believed that Saudi Arabia, with its ample financial and human resources, can establish the robust infrastructure for a nuclear programme were it to deem such an initiative necessary.

Energy Alternatives

As the Saudi population grows and the demand for electricity and water increases, the Kingdom has been exploring alternative, sustainable and reliable sources for generating electricity and water.

In pursuit of long-term economic growth, the Saudi government aims to find an alternative source of fuel. The government hopes to increase its electricity production capacity from 45 gigawatts in 2023 to 120 gigawatts by 2035, thereby reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

According to energy economics expert Dr Anas al-Hajji, Saudi Arabia is one of four Arab countries facing an imminent energy crisis and in urgent need of nuclear technology. The other countries on the list are Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

To address this need, Saudi Arabia has entered into a series of bilateral agreements with several countries specialising in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

After completing technical specification documents to launch a tender process for its nuclear power plant, Saudi Arabia is now considering a licence request for the nuclear plant’s site.

The Low Power Research Reactor project “contributes to the design and development of the nuclear reactor industry in the Kingdom, . . . building human capacity to operate nuclear power reactors and transfer their technologies.” It is part of the Vision 2030 objectives to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and increase its renewable energy production.

The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy is currently carrying out the third and final phase of identifying and configuring the nuclear plant site with two reactors. Saudi Arabia has accepted light Pressurised Water Reactors as the preferred option.

Riyadh claims it is committed to developing a national energy mix in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 by introducing a civil atomic energy programme to be one of the pillars of the Kingdom’s strategic plan for national transformation towards sustainable development.

Saudi Arabia plans to produce 17 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2032. In 2011, the country announced its intention to construct 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years costing over $80 billion.

Saudi Nuclear Programme
Photo taken for Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal on July 9, 2016, in Le Bourget, near Paris. ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

Satellite imagery from 2020 reveals that Saudi Arabia is pushing to complete its first nuclear reactor.

However, the country’s efforts to establish its nuclear power programme are not new. In the past, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a prominent member of the ruling family, former head of the General Intelligence Directorate and former ambassador to the US, has emphasised Saudi Arabia’s right to enrich uranium for energy and self-defence purposes, including the development of nuclear weapons to counter Iran’s nuclear programme.

In an interview with MSNBC, al-Faisal stated, “We should do whatever is necessary, including acquiring the knowledge to develop a bomb in order to defend against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.”

Concerns Over Iranian Nuclear Threat

Saudi Arabia’s ambitions, including those of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, go beyond mere publicity stunts. The Saudi concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme are evident.

The Kingdom may be compelled to protect itself from the Iranian nuclear threat by acquiring a nuclear deterrent or forming alliances that restore the balance of power.

It remains unclear where the Kingdom’s ambitions will end. In 2018, the Saudi crown prince announced that his country would develop nuclear weapons if its regional rival did so. In an interview with CBS News, he stated, “If Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” The statements triggered questions concerning a possible nuclear arms race with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has been exploring potential partnerships with Pakistan and China, among others, to aid its nuclear programme. There are concerns, however, regarding the Kingdom’s ability to successfully implement its brand-new project, its strained relationship with the current US administration and Israel’s stance on the matter.

General Asim Munir, the chief of staff of Pakistan’s military, visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates six weeks into his tenure, raising concerns that the Kingdom may be pursuing its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Simon Henderson, a researcher at the Washington Institute, suggested that the visit might have had ulterior motives, such as the exchange of nuclear and missile technology.

Henderson noted that the brief released by the Saudi Press Agency after the meeting did not mention “the widely held assumption that Pakistan’s “Islamic bomb” project – historically funded by Saudi Arabia – came with a promise that the resulting nuclear weapons and delivery systems would be provided to the Kingdom if it ever needed them.”

There are also indications that Pakistan may have already provided Saudi Arabia with enrichment technology via the proliferation network of the late Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was placed under house arrest in 2004.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions have raised concerns within the international community for several years. A US embassy telegram leaked by WikiLeaks in 2009 warned that Saudi Arabia’s push towards a nuclear energy programme without US participation would threaten its interests in the short term.

A United States Senate report released in 2008 warned, “If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, it will place tremendous pressure on Saudi Arabia to follow suit.”

Moreover, Saudi Arabia will likely develop its nuclear capabilities if the US were to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran.

In a recent survey conducted by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security among 167 experts, 68 per cent of respondents believed Iran would likely become a nuclear-armed state by 2033, while 41 per cent expected Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons during the same period.

Recently, Saudi Arabia has publicly announced its support of all international efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and “threatening” the region and the world.

Saudi’s permanent representative to the United Nations said that “Iran’s failure to fully comply with its obligations under the comprehensive safeguards agreements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a threat to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

On the other hand, Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of hindering the monitoring of its own nuclear programme. The IAEA does not have the authority to verify Saudi’s programme or conduct inspections, raising Iranian concerns regarding the existence of a secret Saudi nuclear weapons programme.

Looking for Partners

By the end of 2020, Saudi Arabia, with the help of China, began constructing a uranium extraction facility in the northwestern city of al-Ula.

Russian company Rosatom announced its intention to participate in the tender for the construction of Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear power plant and offered itself as a potential contractor for the site’s development.

In a letter to former President Donald Trump, US Senators warned of the dangers of secret nuclear and missile programmes carried out by Saudi Arabia with the aid of China.

President Xi Jinping’s recent talks in Saudi Arabia have also given rise to speculation concerning the Kingdom’s endeavour to build nuclear reactors.

Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is negotiating with China and South Korea to determine which country can offer the best deal in terms of energy, cost and reliability.

According to an intelligence report, the Crown Prince aims to develop Saudi Arabia’s own civil nuclear industry to facilitate the transport of Saudi energy across the Kingdom and compete with other countries producing nuclear power.

It is, therefore, logical to assume that the US administration, within current laws and international agreements, will take all necessary measures to prevent Russia and China from securing a nuclear deal with Saudi.

Saudi Arabia is a vast landmass, larger than Western Europe. Its strategic location gives rise to a multitude of threats, with nearly one-third of the world’s energy sources located within its borders, over 20 per cent of global commercial passages and 4 per cent of the world’s GDP.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it is plausible for Prince Mohammed bin Salman to seek nuclear energy and weapons.

Despite signing international and bilateral agreements to develop peaceful nuclear energy, the ambiguity of statements and the absence of a legal framework for the Kingdom’s nuclear programme raise questions about its safety and security.

Since Prince Mohammed bin Salman took the reins, the Saudi regime has become less conservative and increasingly willing to take covert, controversial measures – as it has done in the past – to protect its interests.

However, to build trust, Saudi Arabia must address allegations and refute concerns from the international community and the United States regarding its potential lack of rationality if it were to acquire nuclear weapons.

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