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What's behind Saudi Arabia's quest for a nuclear programme?

What's behind Saudi Arabia's quest for a nuclear programme?
7 min read
19 October, 2023
Analysis: Saudi Arabia's civilian nuclear aspirations are on ice amid US concerns over regional proliferation, tensions with Iran, and the now shaky prospects of normalisation with Israel, but they still feature in Riyadh's long-term plans.

Saudi Arabia's heightened interest in nuclear capabilities has become a focal point of recent regional debates, a sentiment that intensified following a rare interview with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) in September.

"If they get one, we have to get one," he asserted to Fox News, hinting at concerns over Iran's potential ambitions to acquire a nuclear bomb. However, he was quick to emphasise a desire for regional stability and security, stating, "but we don’t want to see that".

Saudi Arabia has shown interest in being part of the US-backed Abraham Accords, joining several Arab countries including fellow Gulf states the UAE and Bahrain in normalising relations with Israel.

The Kingdom has made it clear that this would come with strings attached, chief among them being the transfer of nuclear technology and advanced weaponry from the United States.

But Hamas’ surprise attack on 7th October and the ensuing Israeli war on Gaza have thrown a curveball at Riyadh’s plans. Analysts have speculated that one of Hamas’s motives was to disrupt normalisation talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the past 12 days since the Hamas attacks, Israel has bombarded the besieged Gaza Strip, killing at least 3,700 Palestinians. Amid mounting concerns over immense civilian harm, Saudi Arabia has paused normalisation talks.

Even before the latest violence, Riyadh’s move towards normalisation with Israel was cautious, seeking to avoid criticism that it was neglecting a resolution to the Palestinian issue. One of its conditions was Palestinian statehood.

This doesn’t mean normalisation is off the table. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is currently thinking long-term regarding its economic diversification and increasing its political clout in the region, and a nuclear programme is still part of this.

For now, Riyadh prefers to tread carefully amid the uncertainty of war and promote a humanitarian and diplomatic solution.

Given the risks of a wider regional conflict following Israel’s assault on Gaza, particularly with Iran-backed factions, MbS called Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on 12 October to discuss regional stability and unity amid the Gaza crisis.

This indicates that amid fears of an escalation with Iran, particularly as the US pre-emptively accused Iran of backing Hamas’ attack, Riyadh is trying to balance relations with Tehran and ensure that newly re-established bilateral ties remain smooth.

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Economic and geopolitical concerns

Speaking to The New Arab, Mark Hibbs, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, said, “Today the rationales and aims for nuclear power in Saudi Arabia seem set in stone: technology development, energy diversification away from carbon fuels, optimal long-term management of its fossil resources, and, not least, strategic weight in the Middle East and beyond that Riyadh is confident would result from possession of nuclear energy assets”.

While nuclear energy is cited as a renewable and efficient source of energy, Riyadh has continued its reliance on hydrocarbons while developing new renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar. Therefore, economic considerations are apparently not the primary motive.

"Considering global concerns about climate change, it's surprising to place Saudi Arabia at the forefront [of a shift towards nuclear energy],”  Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre and former deputy for non-proliferation policy in the US Defense Department, told The New Arab.

“With its abundant solar resources, and reserves of natural and frackable gas, there are other avenues to explore for energy production. For Saudi Arabia, therefore, the real game seems to be more geopolitical, not economic or environmental," he added.

Saudi Arabia's ambitions for a nuclear programme are driven more by geopolitical interests rather than economic or environmental ones. [Getty]

Although Saudi Arabia has made strides in its nuclear program, its capabilities remain in their infancy. At present, their nuclear infrastructure is limited to a single research reactor at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. However, it has long stated ambitions to improve its nuclear capabilities.

In May 2022, Saudi Arabia sought technical proposals for the building of two nuclear reactors, and in January 2023, Riyadh confirmed the nation's plan to utilise its local uranium reserves to create low-enriched uranium (LEU) as nuclear fuel. Riyadh has also made minor nuclear uranium discoveries.

“Saudi Arabia has so far comparatively little experience in the nuclear field. It will have to rely on foreign partners to set up nuclear technology capacities and infrastructure,” said Hibbs.

“Riyadh is now looking for a path to future uranium enrichment as a condition for nuclear cooperation with the United States,” he explained.

Evaluating potential partners

Riyadh has expressed a desire to explore nuclear relations with Washington and considers it a top partner, particularly owing to the US’s strong reputation for nuclear engineering and technical expertise.

“There are others that are bidding, and obviously, we would like to build our programme with the best technology in the world, and that will require a certain agreement to be in place,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan said during a joint press conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June.

The US, although a preferred partner, is one of many bidders. The China National Nuclear Corporation made a proposal in August to construct nuclear power facilities in Saudi Arabia, which Riyadh reportedly considered.

This can be interpreted as Riyadh sending a message to Washington that it can acquire nuclear technology elsewhere if needed.

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Indeed, China has already helped Saudi Arabia in building a ballistic missile initiative, which could serve as a delivery system for prospective nuclear warheads in the future. In the energy sector, China has already become a major investor in the Kingdom’s solar energy, due to its dominance in supply chains.

But since China brokered the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, Washington has doubled down on relations with its Gulf state partners, reminding them of the benefits of US security support. The combination of US capabilities and its security umbrella might be more attractive to Riyadh.

"MbS can acquire nuclear technology from other countries, such as France, South Korea, China, or Russia. Yet if he does that, he risks alienating Washington and potentially compromising congressional backing for further advanced military sales," said Sokolski.

A nuclear programme is one of the key Saudi demands as part of US-led normalisation talks with Israel. [Getty]

Transparency and proliferation

Even if Washington is poised to be Riyadh’s most suitable nuclear partner, any journey to nuclear capability is not without challenges and concerns. Observers are particularly worried about nuclear proliferation in the region and transparency concerns.

“Saudi Arabia has deep pockets and a growing engineering project management track record, and it should be able to succeed in setting up and operating nuclear power plants,” said Hibbs.

“There are outstanding questions about whether Riyadh will fully dedicate its nuclear project to international transparency, especially in view of its competition with Iran,” he added.

“Were Saudi Arabia to withhold from the International Atomic Energy Agency critical information about its nuclear activities, that would increase tensions in the region but also between rivalling global powers,” said Hibbs, explaining that this could hinder the Kingdom’s ambitions.

“Constructing a nuclear facility creates further risks. In the Middle East alone, numerous nuclear plants have been hit militarily over the years, such as in Syria, Israel, and Iran. So building new ones adds another layer to the threat of regional escalation," said Sokolski. 

For now, facing several hurdles, such as the need for approval from Congress and Israel's reservations about Saudi uranium enrichment, as well as Riyadh’s disengagement from normalisation talks, the path to an agreement remains clouded.

Yet these past negotiations underpin how Riyadh still sees Washington as a crucial partner, despite its delicate balance to diversify relations between global powers.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey