Analysts voice concern over Saudi Arabia's plans to enrich uranium

Analysts voice concern over Saudi Arabia's plans to enrich uranium
Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the kingdom's energy minister, announced plans for Saudi Arabia to build facilities for the development of nuclear power.
3 min read
10 September, 2019
Prince Abdulaziz announces Saudi Arabia's nuclear ambitions at World Energy Congress in the UAE [AFP]
Saudi Arabia is planning a uranium production and enrichment programme to generate nuclear power, the Saudi Gazette reported on Monday.

Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman spoke during the opening ceremony of the 24th World Energy Congress in Dubai where he said his country wants to diversify its energy sources.

However the enrichment of uranium means it could be used for military purposes as well, which is the issue at the centre of the US and West's concern over Iran’s atomic research programme.

"US policymakers must beware of Saudi Arabia’s new ambition to enrich uranium. While this could be a step toward generating nuclear power for electricity, it can also be a step toward weaponizing uranium for nuclear weapons," senior Forbes contributor Ellen R. Wald wrote.

Also read: Where is 'maximum pressure' on Iran heading?

"We are proceeding with it cautiously ... we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors," Prince Abdulaziz said, referring to a plan to issue a tender for the kingdom's first nuclear reactors.

The tender is expected in 2020, with firms from the US, Russia, South Korea, China and France involved in preliminary talks about the multi-billion-dollar project.

The US and Saudi Arabia have been long standing allies, and the relationship has reached new heights under President Trump.

Both countries have similar regional goals, especially with regard to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the kingdom's main ideological and military rival.

Saudi Arabia has also made diplomatic overtures to Israel over the past several years, the US' most important ally in the region. 

The kingdom aims to mine and enrich its own uranium rather than import it like a number of other countries, which could cause concern in the West.

The development of nuclear power is in a bid to wean the kingdom's economy off oil and natural gas as the country is expected to run out of these natural resources in 70 years. Saudi Arabia's national oil giant Aramco is preparing to sell up to a 5 percent stake by 2020-2021.

Washington has taken a hard line on Iran's nuclear programme that includes the mining and enrichment of their ow uranium, but it remains to be seen how it reacts to one of allies’ nuclear ambitions in the Middle East.

"The US administration, along with the UK, France and others, should consider all options to halt Saudi Arabia's nuclear ambitions before it has committed to anything more than just rhetoric," wrote Wald.

The US and the EU have imposed increasingly harsher sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy since the Revolution in 1979. A brief respite from these was gained when the US signed the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) in 2015.

President Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, claiming that the Islamic Republic was violating its terms.

The US has since pursued a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, re-imposing the economic sanctions with the goal of pushing it toward negotiating and accepting a more severe version of the 2015 agreement.