Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of a civilian nuclear energy program has recently taken a controversial turn, fueled by alternative offers from Russia and China to develop the Persian Gulf state’s nuclear facilities.
Earlier this year, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman drew global attention to his country’s nuclear intentions by announcing that Riyadh intends to enrich domestically sourced uranium to bolster its renewable energy industry.
While this may appear to be a purely energy-focused endeavor on the surface, it is increasingly being viewed as a geopolitical maneuver by the kingdom to extract a defense security pact from Washington in return for the normalization of Saudi relations with Israel.
Aware of its increased leverage gained from improved ties with the Russians and Chinese, Riyadh is using the momentum to extract as many benefits as possible, reportedly seeking access to the most advanced US military technology, including a military alliance with Washington and US approval for the enrichment of uranium for civilian purposes.
However, the Americans have been adamant about imposing restrictions on the kingdom’s uranium enrichment activities, in great part due to deep Israeli reservations about Riyadh’s nuclear aspirations.
Nuclear ambitions, geopolitical concerns
So far, Saudi Arabia has favored nuclear cooperation with the US over bids from other countries – this, despite stricter US conditions and a myriad disagreements with the Biden administration.
Although Washington has not opposed the development of nuclear programs for civilian purposes in West Asia, it has introduced a special protocol that guarantees US cooperation only if countries forgo uranium enrichment or plutonium and fuel reprocessing.
Riyadh’s stance, which challenges this “nonproliferation gold standard” set by the US and adopted by its UAE neighbor, has far-reaching implications for nations seeking nuclear energy independence. While Saudi officials argue that their uranium enrichment pursuits are in response to a potential Iranian threat, the prospect of indigenous Saudi enrichment has strained relations with Washington and jeopardized a normalization deal with Israel.
According to Dr. Paul Dorfman, Chair at Nuclear Consulting Group and Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, nuclear energy is an even more controversial issue in West Asia than anywhere else because Persian Gulf states are concerned that neighbors might use their civilian nuclear programs for military ends. He tells The Cradle:
“And they have a point. Unless uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies are tightly regulated against diversion of civil materials for military purposes, the fact is that new nuclear power plants provide the cover to develop and make nuclear weapons.”
Dr. Dorfman further adds:
“Saudi officials have made it clear on more than one occasion that there is another reason for their interest in nuclear energy technology which was not captured by the royal decree on the Saudi nuclear program – the relationship of the civil program to nuclear weapon production.“
As for Noah Mayhew, Senior Research Associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, the primary question that concerns Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program is its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Mayhew explains to The Cradle that “Saudi Arabia has a now-outdated protocol to this agreement called a Small Quantities Protocol, meant to ease the effort for safeguards implementation for states with little-to-no nuclear material.” He notes that in 2005:
“The IAEA’s Board of Governors found that the old model for small quantities protocols was too easy to qualify for and suspended too many requirements under the safeguards agreement, so it approved a new model. Saudi Arabia would not qualify for its small quantities protocol and has not amended it to the new model text as many other States have.”
Then just last week, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman announced at the IAEA’s General Conference that the kingdom intends to rescind its outdated small quantities protocol and switch to a so-called Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA), a change the IAEA has been demanding for years.
However, the Saudis have not made clear whether, in addition to the regular CSA, Riyadh plans to sign up for “the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which allows for more wide-ranging and intrusive checks such as snap inspections.”
Alternative partners: China and Russia
At this juncture, the possibility of Saudi Arabia acquiring uranium enrichment technology from the US remains highly uncertain. Edwin Lyman, Director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests, however, that the Biden administration might be willing to drop objections to Saudi enrichment as part of a broader deal between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Today, the preservation of nuclear nonproliferation norms is a growing concern for nuclear powers, given recent developments like the AUKUS agreement and support for nuclear fuel cycles that produce bomb-usable plutonium. Lyman tells The Cradle:
“We are very concerned about this as we agree with the policies of prior administrations that limited the spread of nationally owned uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies around the world because of the potential proliferation and security risks … it is pretty obvious that MbS [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] wants enrichment not only to support a civil program but also to be able to use the facility to make nuclear weapons materials in the future as, for example, a deterrent to Iran.”
Skepticism also exists about whether the US Congress, where Saudi Arabia lacks significant support, would endorse Saudi enrichment efforts or any measures that could affect Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in defense technology.
But Riyadh has options. If the US and Saudi Arabia fail to reach a consensus, the latter could turn to other potential partners such as China and Russia, whose influence in the kingdom has spiked in the past year.
The Saudis will have witnessed this year’s Russian construction of Turkiye’s first-ever nuclear power reactor, the completion of which was impeded only by western sanctions.
Moscow’s energy giant Rosatom has also expressed its intention to participate in the tender for Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear power plant. Also, China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) has already shown interest in building a nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia’s resource-rich Eastern Province.
Riyadh’s relations with Beijing, in particular, have grown considerably in recent years: Saudi Arabia has become a dialogue partner at the exclusive Chinese-led, 9-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and, in August, was invited to join the first expansion of BRICS nations, also under Chinese and Russian agreement.
In addition, Beijing stands to benefit from the historic China-Arab States Summit launched in December 2022 in Riyadh, which saw the signing of $10 billion worth of investment deals between the two countries.
Despite the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) granting signatories the right to peaceful nuclear energy use – including uranium enrichment – Mayhew does not view cooperation with Russia or China as a gateway to nuclear weapons proliferation.
He suggests that while Beijing and Moscow may or may not insist on Saudi Arabia adopting an additional protocol, neither would support the accession of a new member to the elite club of nuclear-armed states.
West Asian nuclear arms race
The implications of Riyadh’s nuclear program – particularly its intent to enrich uranium – extend to its neighbors, most notably to rogue regional nuclear state Israel, and has the potential to jeopardize Tel Aviv’s relentless normalization efforts with Saudi Arabia.
For this reason, while some Israeli circles express strong disagreement and concerns about Saudi nuclear ambitions, the Israeli political establishment itself has remained relatively muted on the subject.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi even suggests that Israel may not oppose an agreement allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium for research purposes. In contrast, Israel’s energy minister, Israel Katz, publicly opposes Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear program as part of US efforts to strengthen Israeli-Saudi relations.
Iran is another neighboring country with significant concerns about Saudi Arabia’s expanded nuclear power program, particularly its uranium enrichment. Lyman anticipates that Tehran would interpret any move to permit Saudi Arabia’s uranium enrichment as provocative and threatening.
This could drive Iran to further expand its own nuclear capabilities and stockpile materials, making it increasingly challenging to restore a nuclear deal with Tehran.
It is important to note that Iran’s continued high-level enrichment activities stem from its response to the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and subsequent western impediments to reinstating the landmark nuclear deal.
While Saudi Arabia, as a member of the nuclear NPT, has the right to enrich uranium under safeguards, deep disagreements among key regional players are fostering the conditions for a West Asian nuclear arms race.
Riyadh’s nuclear diplomacy
Some observers propose that any future nuclear cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and other countries, such as Russia, China, South Korea, or France, should be contingent on the kingdom adopting the Additional Protocol. Such a protocol would increase the ability of the IAEA to investigate Saudi nuclear facilities and activities by increasing the nuclear watchdog’s authority.
However, any Saudi negotiations with the US on its nuclear program are expected to pose challenges: Riyadh’s controversial and ambiguous statements about its nuclear intentions, and the absence of a legal framework for the Saudi nuclear program, raise concerns about safety and security.
West Asia is currently witnessing shifts in military doctrines toward more offensive strategies. Traditional policies of isolation, threats, sabotage, sanctions, and embargoes have proven relatively ineffective in slowing down nuclear capability development and nuclear enrichment programs.
Dorfman suggests that it may be time to encourage a less coercive approach that promotes collaboration over confrontation:
“Not only could it provide breathing space for a constructive approach to break the current stalemate, but by addressing legitimate concerns on all sides, it could initiate a move toward a more stable Gulf region through greater mutual understanding, enhanced cooperation, and trust-building.”
While Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions have raised regional and international security concerns, they have also triggered some significant political and diplomatic scrambling – and not just among its nuclear opponents and partners.
It is the kingdom that may have the toughest job of all in maintaining a careful balancing act among great powers competing for West Asian influence.
Between managing its traditional alliance with the US, its pivot towards Eurasian powers Russia and China, efforts to foster regional stability with Iran, and the highly sensitive issue of normalization with Israel, Saudi Arabia’s ever-nuclear move will be the subject of international scrutiny and censure.