The Saudi WMD Act: A Barrier to Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions

US Capitol building
Credit: Mark (Raul654) / Wikimedia Commons

A few days earlier, a number of US lawmakers in the Senate introduced a bill that would monitor Saudi Arabia’s nuclear activities and prevent the kingdom from acquiring nuclear weapons. Senator Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley introduced a draft called the Saudi WMD Act (Stopping Activities Underpinning Development in Weapons of Mass Destruction). Suspicious nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China was the reason for the introduction of this draft. The draft stipulates that in the event of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear violations, the United States will stop “most US arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” as well as foreign individuals or countries involved in the export or transfer of prohibited items mentioned in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), will be sanctioned by the United States. Regardless of approval, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions will lead to an arms race in the Middle East, which in turn will make the region more unstable.

Saudi Arabia is a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and has a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, Riyadh has several projects to develop its nuclear industry such as the establishment of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in 2010, a nuclear deal with France, Argentina, South Korea, Kazakhstan and China, and a long-term proposal to construct 16 nuclear reactors by 2040. The country’s efforts to develope a nuclear industry are rooted in several reasons that reflect Riyadh’s concerns. 

Energy supply concerns

Saudi Arabia possesses around 17 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves. The oil and gas sector accounts for 70 percent of export earnings. It produces 9 million barrel crude oil, of which it exports 7 million barrel and the remaining quarter is used for domestic consumption. In 2018, Saudi Arabia was the largest producer and consumer of electricity in the Persian Gulf region, producing more than 39 percent of its electricity from oil and 60 percent from gas, and only less than 1 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. It plans to supply its electricity from nuclear energy so that it can export all of its oil.

The Kingdom is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. It has raised its desalinated water production to five million cubic meters (c.m.) per day at the end of 2017 and it plans to invest about $ 80 billion by 2025 in a bid to boost desalinated water production to 8.5 million c.m. per day. 90 percent of the country’s water is supplied through desalination, and about 15 percent of produced oil is used for desalination operations. Nuclear energy can replace some of the oil consumed for this purpose.

Confrontation with Iran

Saudi Arabia and Iran are two regional powers and differ on many issues. The two countries do not currently have formal relations. Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran in January 2016 after Iran protested the execution of a Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. The severance of ties and deep differences between the two countries on regional issues have led Saudi Arabia to constantly monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.

For the first time, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on March 15, 2018 in an interview with CBS “60 Minutes,” said that Ayatollah Khamenei is the Middle East’s “Hitler.” He said about the Saudi nuclear industry: “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible. “

Before MBS, in June 2011, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence has made similar claim at the Molesworth Royal Air Force Base in England. In May 2012, Dennis Ross, a senior US diplomat and former envoy to the Middle East, confirmed that in April 2009 King Abdullah explicitly told him, “If they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.”

The two countries differ on different issues, such as differing interpretations of Islam, a desire to lead the Islamic world, conflicting oil policies, and relations with the United States and other Western countries. Both countries are waging proxy wars with each other in Syria and Yemen, and Iraq and Lebanon are the bone of contention for each of them. The existence of Iran and its influence in the Arab countries frighten Saudi Arabia. Riyadh believes that Iran’s military or civilian activities will increase its power, and Saudi Arabia, after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement (Iran nuclear deal) in 2015, realized that the United States could make peace with Iran if necessary, and that it could not be trusted to contain Iran, so itself has to establish a balance of power against Iran. That is why it seeks nuclear equality with Iran. A report of Wall Street Journal on Aug. 24, 2020, claimed that Saudi Arabia constructed in cooperation with two Chinese companies a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore in Al Ula City. It convinced Western officials that Riyadh is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon and a nuclear race with Iran, and that the country is trying to establish a balance power with Iran through its nuclear industry.

Neighbors’ nuclear program

Given the modernity, cheapness, and attractiveness of nuclear energy, most Middle Eastern countries have a comprehensive plan to develop their nuclear industry for the future. Saudi Arabia as a leading and the richest Arab country, cannot lag behind its other regional and Arab neighbors.

The United Arab Emirates is the first Arab country to lunch its first nuclear power plant (Barakah nuclear power plant) in July 2020 and plans to supply half of its energy needs from nuclear and renewable energy by 2050. Iraq announced its request to the powerful nuclear states to build civilian nuclear power plants at the UN summit in September 2017. In March 2015, Jordan signed a $10 million contract with Russia to build a nuclear power plant. In September 2010, Kuwait announced its intention to build four nuclear reactors by 2022. Turkey opened its first nuclear power plant in April 2018 and plans to build three more by 2030. Egypt announced in March 2007 that it would build 10 nuclear-powered electricity-generating stations.

In response to this volume of nuclear programs in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia announced in 2011 that it would build 16 nuclear reactors worth more than $100 billion over 25 years. Achieving this goal may not be a dream, according to the Guardian‘s confidential report of Sept. 17, 2020. The report pointed out that China has surveyed nine different regions of Saudi for prospective uranium deposits, and the findings show that Saudi Arabia may have enough uranium ore to produce nuclear fuel. The disclosure intensified concerns about Riyadh’s interest in an atomic weapons program.

Nuclear-oriented balance of power

Saudi Arabia is the United States’ traditional partner in the region and in May 2008, the US and Saudi Arabia agreed to establish a nuclear cooperation framework and Saudi Arabia joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) but the US could not fix its presence in the Saudi nuclear industry. In order to begin nuclear cooperation with a foreign country, the US government requires to sign the “U.S. Atomic Energy Act Section 123.” The US signed Section 123 with the UAE on January 15, 2009. Accordingly, the UAE agreed to forgo any domestic fuel enrichment or reprocessing capability, in favor of long-term external fuel supply arrangements.

The US has been pursuing Section 123 with Jordan since 2008, but Amman has not forgone its right to fuel enrichment or reprocessing, and Saudi Arabia has no intention of doing so either. However, in a report in June 2019, Reuters revealed the secret nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States. According to the report, the Trump administration granted two authorizations to the US companies to share sensitive nuclear power information with Saudi Arabia shortly after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Despite secret nuclear cooperation between the two countries, until Saudi Arabia signs Section 123 with the United States, Washington will not be able to begin formal cooperation with Riyadh to build a nuclear reactor. Section 123 requires congressional approval and members of Congress are unlikely to allow the government to do so. They are sensitive to this issue because they see it as contrary to Israel’s national security. 

China has traditionally not demanded such strict non-proliferation safeguards in its nuclear export doctrine, giving it a competitive edge over Washington. The export of nuclear technology became an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and from 2013 onwards, Chinese state-owned enterprises have been encouraged to actively pursue opportunities to sell their nuclear energy expertise in developing countries. It is noteworthy that China has had a dubious history in providing nuclear technology to countries in West Asia. As far back as in 1983, China secretly made an agreement with Algeria to build a nuclear reactor. Saudi Arabia and China signed nuclear agreements in 2012 and 2017 to extract uranium from seawater and build a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTR).

China-Saudi Arabia nuclear cooperation could increase tensions between the US and China. China’s close economic and technical cooperation with the Middle East means entering into the US’s traditional sphere of influence and accelerating China’s efforts to complete the Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East. However, the two countries are currently struggling with issues such as human rights violations in Xinjiang, the militarization of the South China Sea, trade imbalances etc. China’s entry into the Middle East could deteriorate Washington’s already soured relations with Beijing.

The Saudi WMD Act has been introduced and we will have to wait and see if it is approved. Traditionally the US has pursued the policy of appeasement towards Saudi Arabia. However, with Biden’s arrival the situation has changed somewhat, and the new US administration and congressional lawmakers are calling for a more serious response to Saudi activities. It remains to be seen to what extent the Biden administration will crack down on its traditional ally.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Mohammad Salami has a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, especially Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the GCC countries.