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Saudi Arabia considers nuclear deal with China and Russia to put pressure on US

August 29, 2023 at 12:56 pm

Chinese President, Xi Jinping (L) is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (R) at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 8, 2022. [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia – Anadolu Agency]

Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering bids from China, France and Russia for its ambitious nuclear power project, as part of a larger strategy to influence the US over a high-stakes security agreement. Even as the world’s top oil exporter, the kingdom has expressed deep interest in developing a civil nuclear energy programme. 

The US is Riyadh’s first choice for such a programme, and it is said to be looking to include a nuclear deal as part of any agreement to normalise ties with Israel. Washington however has balked at the idea. 

The potential normalisation between Saudi Arabia and the occupation state is seen as a significant diplomatic triumph for the administration of US President Joe Biden, which has described the initiative as crucial. However, challenges remain, because Washington is hesitating over Saudi Arabia’s insistence on having no restrictions for enriching uranium.

Insiders have revealed that, faced with the US position on such restrictions, Riyadh is seriously evaluating alternative offers from China, France and Russia. 

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An anonymous source is reported in the Financial Times as saying that Saudi Arabia will make its decision based on the best offer on the table. Another said that while Riyadh would prefer the US, which is seen to have better technology and is already a close partner of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s restrictions on uranium enrichment would scupper any cooperation.

Although supportive of diplomatic engagement with Saudi Arabia, Israel is in two-minds about the issue. Major concerns spring from fears that this transfer of technology could amplify nuclear proliferation in an already volatile region. Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister, Ron Dermer, hinted at the possibility of Riyadh seeking a nuclear partnership with other countries, particularly China, if the US decides against helping Riyadh.

The likelihood of further entrenchment of China’s relations with the Saudis is a major headache for Washington. Riyadh has drifted further away from the US, and was recently inducted into the BRICS group of emerging economies. This came on the back of Beijing mediating between Saudi Arabia and its main regional adversary, Iran.

Despite its growing connection with China, Saudi Arabia is still largely dependent on the security umbrella provided by the US. It is eager for Washington’s nod for a robust defence pact. 

In light of these complexities, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has indicated that the Biden administration will seek insights from the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding nuclear collaboration with Saudi Arabia before making any firm decisions. “There are still some ways to travel,” Sullivan is reported as saying, referring to a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.