Experts skeptical of the kingdom’s plans to build 16 reactors, which they believe is motivated by a desire to counter Iranian influence
The official inauguration of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear research program marks the beginning of a long process to actualize the kingdom’s ambition of becoming an atomic power in the Middle East. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, recently laid the foundation stone for the country’s first reactor, raising concerns of atomic proliferation in the region. The move is seen as part of Riyadh’s broader goal of increasing its sphere of influence in order to counter arch-foe Shiite Iran’s expansionism
However, analysts argue that the bigger danger comes from the potential for the kingdom to seek weapons technology from Pakistan, China or Russia. Last march, MBS conveyed a readiness to obtain nuclear arms should Tehran do so.
“Saudi Arabia has been clear that it considers the Islamic Republic’s nuclear technology development a threat and has said that if these capabilities progress then it will seek the same, regardless of international sentiment,” Dr. Ellen R. Wald, a Saudi expert and President of Transversal Consulting, explained to The Media Line. “The Saudis are much more likely to purchase this technology from [Islamabad] than it is to try and develop nuclear weapons on its own.
“Riyadh also could probably acquire the technology from China or Russia if either country was so inclined,” Dr. Wald contended, adding that “this is a far greater security risk than the development of a nuclear research facility that is years away from producing anything useful.”
According to Saudi state media, the new research reactor is one of seven projects bin Salman announced during a recent visit to Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. Over the next two decades, the Sunni Muslim nation hopes to build a total of 16 such facilities at a cost of $80 billion, ostensibly with a view to reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
“Saudi Arabia has announced a few times that it is going to build nuclear power plants and that it wants to have significant investment in this area, and yet we haven’t seen major steps forward,” Antony Froggatt, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House who specializes in nuclear energy, related to The Media Line. “It’s a complicated business and not quick. I don’t think [Riyadh] will realistically be operating reactors before the 2030s.
“In countries that have established nuclear programs, the rule of thumb is that it takes five years to plan and five years to build,” he elaborated. “In those without this [base], the development stage takes significantly longer because you need to set up the relevant regulatory oversight structures within government, you need to develop supply chains and contract negotiations.”
Should Saudi Arabia indeed succeed, the kingdom would become the second Gulf Arab state to have atomic infrastructure after the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which currently is in the process of building several South Korean-designed reactors.
From an economic and scientific standpoint, though, Froggatt questions the wisdom of pursuing nuclear power over other forms of energy.
“The cost of renewable energies has fallen so dramatically in the last decade that if you’re going for nuclear you’re going for a more expensive option,” he noted.
Other experts agree that the Saudi program does not pose an immediate threat.
“I doubt it will have much impact as they are just beginning their efforts,” David Ottaway, a Middle East specialist from the Washington-based Wilson Center, asserted to The Media Line. He pointed to stalled negotiations between Riyadh and American companies that possess nuclear expertise, arguing that this will factor into delays the kingdom is expected to face.
“The Saudis have been negotiating with U.S. companies but [have] refused so far to sign the so-called 123 Agreement banning reprocessing or production of nuclear fuels,” Ottaway continued, referring to a sub-section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that sets strict terms for sharing nuclear technology. “I have not seen the details of which company is building the Saudi research reactor, but this is just the start on a long road to building a nuclear power capacity.”
The Saudi initiative comes as Washington recently re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal. China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Union all still back the accord, despite President Donald Trump’s opposition.