Saudi Arabia is moving swiftly to become the next country in the Middle East with nuclear power. The Kingdom is on the verge of striking a deal with the US for the purchase of nuclear reactors despite concerns over its refusal to accept stringent restrictions against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, who is the de facto ruler of the country, has ambitious plans to diversify the country’s energy source and is in the market to purchase nuclear power reactors. The potential for lucrative deals is too good to be missed and the Trump administration is thought to be mulling over loosening US law to win Saudi contracts, worth billions. The Kingdom has refused to be bound by stringent US regulations that restrict reprocessing and enriching uranium for the production of nuclear weapons.
With competitors like Russia and China waiting in the wings, Trump is keen to strike a deal with the Saudi’s and breathe new life into the American nuclear industry.
Finalists to build nuclear power stations along the Kingdom’s desolate Arabian Gulf strip will be announced in the coming months, but it’s not certain if the US will be the one to strike the deal. Israel, despite having its own nuclear arsenal, is strongly opposed to any other country in the Middle East acquiring nuclear weapons and with alliances constantly shifting in the region it may try to derail any deal.
US policy also seeks to limit nuclear weapons proliferation especially in the Middle East but Trump may have no option other than to lower restrictions with Saudi Arabia.
Although the Saudi’s have insisted that their programme will be peaceful, they have also refused to rule out the right to enrich uranium to weapons grade. A senior Saudi official was quoted by the Wall Street Journal admitting as much. “I’m not saying Saudi would want to enrich uranium tomorrow or anytime soon but they don’t want to be committed to anything that bans them from doing it. It is quite political,” the unnamed senior official said.
His comments have stirred speculation that one of the purpose of the nuclear programme is to compete with Iran and maintain an option to develop nuclear weapons. With some overlapping technology it would be in a strong position to move in that direction if the Kingdom desired so.
It’s not clear to what extent Trump will be able to convince Congress to agree to the deal. Under US law any export of nuclear technology involves signing a non-proliferation document known as a 123 agreement. The UAE signed one in 2009 which is said to be the most restrictive and has become as the gold standard.
Saudis, however, have reject the gold standard and the Trump administration must now come out with a new plan that will not completely block Riyash’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons.