Pride and pragmatism: The UAE’s nuclear strategy

By Lauren Carty | June 2, 2014

When the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed an agreement for nuclear cooperation in 2009, the terms of the deal were quickly heralded as a gold standard for US nuclear negotiations and nonproliferation goals. Not only did the UAE agree to forgo uranium enrichment and nuclear waste reprocessing—an unprecedented concession in a bilateral agreement of this type—but the United States also retained the right to order the UAE to remove special fissionable material “if exceptional circumstances of concern from a nonproliferation standpoint so require.”

For its part, the United States agreed that it would not extend terms more favorable than these to any other non-nuclear-weapon state in the Middle East in a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement. The Emirates, however, probably did not foresee the United States backing off its high standards in future agreements with countries outside the Middle East, such as the 2014 agreement with Vietnam that is awaiting Congress’ likely approval. In spite of the Emirates’ subtle animosity over the more flexible US-Vietnam agreement, they have taken it in stride, and have actually used it as an opportunity to lead and exert dominance over the Arab world, as well as to boast of their commitments to sustainability and clean energy technologies.

A double standard? Unlike any other US nuclear agreement to share certain nuclear technologies with its allies, the 2009 arrangement included the stipulation that the UAE must import low enriched uranium rather than building its own enrichment facilities. Some analysts were puzzled when, five years later, the United States entered into a nuclear cooperation deal with Vietnam that allowed the country to enrich uranium. If the gold standard had been established with the UAE in 2009, why did the United States not apply it to Vietnam? Outmaneuvering China is one answer to this question, along with the fact that Vietnam hardly has the infrastructure to undertake a viable enrichment program. These considerations gave the United States incentive to create nuclear foreign policy on a case-by-case basis.

Whatever the reasons for the discrepancy, the UAE is fully aware that it received the short end of the stick. And while all official sources suggest that the Emirates had voluntarily foregone enrichment development capabilities, it is likely that the UAE views the new Vietnam deal as a blow to its own independence, pride, and status. But while Persian Gulf states desire to be as independent of the United States as possible, they also reluctantly accept that it is in their best interest to rely on the United States.

The UAE has chosen to grin and bear the dependent nature of its deal with the United States. For 30 years, the agreement will prevent the Emirates from becoming a nuclear-fuel-enriching hub for states that will be in need of fuel. If the United States continues to make less stringent nuclear deals with other nations, these deals will, however silently, continue to afflict the pride and independence of the small Gulf monarchy. But instead of dwelling on the Vietnam deal as a sore point, the Emirates have made their own agreement with the United States a matter of pride—part of their well-cared-for image as leaders in clean energy and technological advancement.

Staying positive. Only two weeks after the US-Vietnam nuclear deal was announced in October 2013, the national newspaper of the United Arab Emirates (which happens to be named The National) published an op-ed by a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairperson endorsing the UAE’s nuclear program as the “gold standard” and emphasizing its commitment to safety, transparency, and nonproliferation. While the article didn’t once mention the US-Vietnam deal, it could be interpreted as a response to the US double standard that offers other states nuclear power technology under looser terms.

The United Arab Emirates is taking advantage of the opportunity to boast of its nuclear cooperation, gain leading roles in new nonproliferation efforts, and exert influence over the Arab world and the international nuclear community. While a few other Middle Eastern countries have entered into memorandums of understanding with the United States over possible nuclear cooperation, the United Arab Emirates was the first, and is so far the only, Middle Eastern country to follow through. Even though the UAE will not be able to enrich uranium for its own fuel and for sale to other states, it will have the opportunity to sell electricity from the four nuclear plants the government hopes to have running by 2020.

Nuclear power is just part of the UAE’s strategy for meeting future energy demands. Abu Dhabi—one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE—has become the headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency, an organization of 163 countries including the United States and the European Union. Another emirate, Dubai, looks to gain recognition for its environmental sustainability efforts, aiming to be in the top 10 carbon-neutral cities in the world by the end of the decade. Nuclear energy will play a major role in achieving this goal. Perhaps most notably, the United Arab Emirates has taken the lead in the establishment of an international uranium bank. Abu Dhabi committed $10 million to the creation of a bank conceived by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). The NTI uranium bank could be inaugurated as early as the autumn of 2014.

The UAE’s decision to play by all the rules and accept its reliance on the United States’ fuel supply has allowed it to once again take a leadership role in the global nuclear regime. This approach, as the Emirati government very well knows, will contribute to the UAE’s future self-sufficiency and status.

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