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Monthly Archives: September 2019

Saudi Nuclear Ambitions

Photo by Dean_Calma

Over the past two and a half years of the Trump administration, American energy companies have quietly made deals with Saudi Arabian energy officials to begin trading information on nuclear energy.[1] The United States and Saudi Arabia see nuclear development as a very symbiotic and lucrative deal, which could bring the US several billions of dollars in trade revenue every year. However, several politicians and energy officials fear that a nuclear arms race will develop between Iran and SA.[2] SA hopes to both satisfy its increasing power needs and protect itself.[3] Despite some hesitations, the US has moved forward with authorizations as the Kingdom hopes to build two new plants in the coming years.

The Desert’s Cold War?

Since 2017, energy officials of the Trump administration have approved deals between American nuclear energy companies and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia allowing the sale of technology and construction services. US Energy Secretary Rick Perry approved six authorizations in secret to Saudi energy companies.[4] The information is currently being implemented and preliminary work is underway in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides that states can “promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”[5] In response to concerns raised by US defense officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Trump administration is watching the trade closely to ensure that it will not escalate into nuclear proliferation.[6]

At the same time, Iran announced new uranium enrichment levels and high stockpiling limit. While Iran’s enrichment levels are far below the levels required for a bomb, there are fears that this threat could motivate SA to develop nuclear weapons.[7]

Allies at Odds

Saudi Arabia is interested in nuclear technology because it wants to satisfy its energy demands and protect itself from Iran. SA’s energy officials say that nuclear technology is the only way to meet the national power need, which is expected to increase 8% over the coming year.[8] In addition, Saudi sees an emerging threat in rival Iran’s proliferation and wants to protect itself by deterring Iran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that “the kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran does” and will “match Iran’s nuclear capability.”[9]

Both the US and SA want to see this lucrative development of nuclear energy, but the US does not want to see nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. For the US, securing a nuclear energy ‘information-trade’ with Saudi Arabia is extremely important for both economic and political reasons. The US would gain multi-billion dollars in revenue from the Kingdom and would prevent rival powers like Russia or China stepping in to take the opportunity. Some lawmakers, however, have expressed reservations about transferring nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Senator Marco Rubio, when interviewed about the benefits of the plan, said that “there’s a legitimate question over whether such a government could be trusted with nuclear energy and the potential weaponization of it.”[10] Despite his concerns, Sen. Rubio, along with Sen. Bob Menendez, moved forward with the multi-billion dollar trade plans under the supervision of the Government Accountability Office.[11]

Though the plans are being implemented, the United States’ distrust of Saudi Arabia remains. After the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, several American officials questioned Saudi Arabia’s ability to responsibly use nuclear technology, stating that the Saudis are “not to be trusted.”[12] The US also fears that the transfer of sensitive technology could escalate tensions between Iran and SA and exacerbate conflicts in places like Yemen.

Present Trends

For now, the Trump administration continues to work with Saudi energy officials and approve trade agreements for construction, technology, and information under the guidelines of the NPT. President Trump has said little on the topic, but still views SA as an important ally in the Middle East and as a valuable trade partner.

[1] Gardner, Timothy. 2019. “US Approved Secret Nuclear Power Work for Saudi Arabia”, Reuters, March 27.

[2] Gheorghe, Eliza. 2019. “Iran’s Nuclear Program Seems to be Accelerating. Will Saudi Arabia take a Similar Path?”, Washington Post, July 12.

[3] Brumfiel, Geoff. 2019. “As Saudi Arabia Builds a Nuclear Reactor, Some Worry About Its Motives” NPR. May 6.

[4] Gardner, Timothy. 2019. “US Approved Secret Nuclear Power Work for Saudi Arabia”, Reuters, March 27.

[5] UNODA, 1970. “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)”.

[6] Mufson, Steven. 2018. “Pompeo: Saudis must not enrich uranium if it seeks civilian nuclear cooperation”, Washington Post. May 24.

[7] Taylor, Adam. 2019. “What Iran’s uranium enrichment increase actually means”. Washington Post. July 8.

[8]Johnson, Keith. 2019. “Who’s Afraid of Saudi Nukes?” Foreign Policy. February 22.

[9] Gardner, Timothy. 2019. “US Approved Secret Nuclear Power Work for Saudi Arabia”, Reuters, March 27.

[10] Desiderio, Andrew. 2018. “Marco Rubio Warns Trump on Saudi Nuclear Talks: ‘No Relationship Is Too Big to Fail”. Daily Beast. Nov. 1.

[11] Gardner, Timothy. 2019. “US Approved Secret Nuclear Power Work for Saudi Arabia”, Reuters, March 27.

[12]Johnson, Keith. 2019. “Who’s Afraid of Saudi Nukes?” Foreign Policy. February 22.