A brief review of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program

By |2019-10-01T12:15:52-07:00October 1, 2019|

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Saudi Arabia is not a nuclear weapons state and has always declared that it is only interested in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Saudi Kingdom manifested an interest in nuclear energy during the 1960s, and started its civilian nuclear program in the 1970s. In 1977, Saudi Arabia built its nuclear plant for the development of a civilian nuclear program – the King Abd Al-Aziz Centre for Science and Technology (KAACST) – in Riyadh, and in 1988 the Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI) was established. In that same year, Riyadh signed the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and, since the start of the 21st century, has advocated for the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East (MENWFZ). In 2006, in fact, Saudi Arabia, and six other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – namely, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – announced that the Council was commissioning a study on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It was on this occasion that Saudi Arabia outlined plans to construct up to 16 large nuclear reactors over the course of 20 to 25 years to provide the Kingdom with 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2040.[1] Two years later, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding under the auspices of the Atoms for Peace program with the Bush administration, through which the U.S. would sell nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel to Saudi Arabia for its development of a civil nuclear program, specifying that no support would be given to the building of an atomic bomb by Riyadh. Shortly after the memorandum with the U.S., Saudi Arabia established nuclear cooperation agreements with France (2011); South Korea (2011); China (2012); and other nuclear companies such as INVAP, in Argentina (2015); Rosatom, in Russia (2015); CNEC, in China (2016 and 2017); JAEC and JUMCO, in Jordan (2017). It had also initiated talks with the government of the Czech Republic, Russia and United Kingdom with the purpose of fulfilling its aspiration to build its nuclear rectors.[2]

Suspicions about Riyadh’s true intentions surfaced at the end of the 1990s, when rumors about possible collusion on a joint nuclear weapon program between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia surfaced due to several high-profile interactions between the two governments.[3] To increase the level of suspicion was (and still is) the consideration that even though Saudi Arabia has been part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1962, the Crown hasn’t subscribed to the comprehensive safeguards agreement, thus preventing IAEA inspectors from accessing its nuclear facilities.

In 2016, Nuclear Threat Initiative reported: “Saudi Arabia possesses only a rudimentary civil nuclear infrastructure, and currently lacks the physical and technological resources to develop an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.”[4] It became even more of a concern when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared in 2018 that if Iran were to develop a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia would follow suit.[5] Recent developments that are throwing Iran into open hostility with the United States and its allies in the region – Saudi Arabia being one of them – make Prince bin Salman’s declaration worrisome.

The threat posed by Iran adds to some murky indicators surrounding Riyadh’s nuclear program, and some revelations regarding recent secret deals with the Trump administration. Altogether, they strongly suggest that Saudi Arabia is considering developing nuclear weapons with the complicity of the United States. In April 2019, Bloomberg published some satellite pictures showing the development, over two years, of a columnar vessel at a reactor facility in Riyadh that would plausibly contain atomic fuel, and that seemed to be nearly completed.[6] This represents a problematic factor, considering the impossibility that the IAEA could pursue inspections.

The same article elucidates that the Trump administration is advancing sales of nuclear power plants and technology to Saudi Arabia, and had kept the deals away from Congressional scrutiny. The six secret authorizations are known as Part 810 authorizations, which would authorize sharing U.S. nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia. To this regard, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has refused to disclose the nature of the authorizations when asked to do so by Congress.

Finally, the U.S.-Saudi Arabia deal satisfies economic interests. In fact, the nuclear energy market is very slim, and there are many lobbyists who can exercise pressure to induce a government – and U.S. government constitutes no exception – to enter into deals with countries that do want to invest on a nuclear program. It is known that there are numerous lobbyist forces in the U.S. that can be interested in the deal, which include: a few American energy firms, such as General Electric, NuScale, TerraPower and Westinghouse; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has a strong friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and might have some connections with the U.S.-Saudi Arabia deal as a way to recover from financial losses; Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, who has been trying to secure a deal of this kind with the Middle East for years and is currently under investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

The U.S. administration argued that there is no direct linkage between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and declared that it is working to ensure that Saudi Arabia’s program develops transparently and only for civil purposes. However, any nuclear power plant that has been built (or is planned) in Saudi Arabia will be fueled with uranium that can be enriched to uranium-235, which is what is needed to build a nuclear bomb. Moreover, all nuclear reactors produce plutonium, which is also used to make nuclear weapons. Even if concerns over the possibility that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a nuclear weapon are cast aside, a recent approval of an $8 billion sale of conventional weapons to Saudi Arabia by the Trump administration without Congressional approval (again) has met with Congressional concern and has contributed to increased tensions in the region for two reasons, at least. First, the deal was approved following the crisis with Iran in June 2019 after Iran downed a U.S. Global Hawk drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Shortly after this event Mike Pompeo confirmed the U.S. was trying to build a global coalition against Iran, not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and Asia, thus adding fuel to the fire.[7] Second, there is concern that the weapons could be used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen to kill thousands of civilians.

The muddy atmosphere surrounding the U.S. – Saudi nuclear deal has not been dispelled. We are left only with the hope that, if and when clarity is achieved, it won’t be too late.


[1] “Nuclear power in Saudi Arabia,” World Nuclear Association (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/saudi-arabia.aspx).

[2] For further details, see ibidem.

[3] “Saudi Arabia – Nuclear,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 2016 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/saudi-arabia/nuclear/).

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Tirone, Jonathan, “Before Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, it may have to follow Iran’s lead,” Bloomberg, March 6, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-06/before-saudi-goes-nuclear-it-may-have-to-follow-iran-s-lead).

[6] Tirone, Jonathan, “First images of Saudi nuclear reactor show plant nearing finish,” Bloomberg, April 3, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-03/first-images-of-saudi-nuclear-reactor-show-plant-nearing-finish).

[7] Morello, Carol, “Iran crisis looms over Pompeo’s trip to Middle East, Asia,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pompeo-confronts-dual-crises-as-he-begins-trip-to-middle-east-asia/2019/06/23/c77180d0-95db-11e9-8d0a-5edd7e2025b1_story.html?noredirect=on).