By Almuntaser Albalawi | April 10, 2023
Recent news reports suggesting Saudi Arabia is seeking US aid for a peaceful nuclear program are bringing attention to the distressing potential for nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. Yet conversations about averting such a doomed future for the region might be heading once again in the wrong direction. History suggests that power politics—in which self-interest is prioritized over global interests—may not be the best lens for looking at issues of arms control.
During the 10th review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last year, Arab states reiterated their call for establishing a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This has been a long-standing position, but it should not be taken for granted. A growing interest in nuclear technology in the Middle East—combined with ambiguity over nuclear activities in Iran and Israel—raises concerns about potential proliferation in the region. A robust and inclusive WMD-free zone remains the best solution for addressing these concerns.
To be sure, it will be extremely difficult to find a way to bring Israel into such a zone. Still, the other countries of the region and other concerned parties—including the United States, Russia, and China—need to look for a way to at least begin talks with Israel about nuclear proliferation in the region.
A dramatic expansion of nuclear power in the Middle East is expected over the next decade. In 2021, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the second nation in the region (after Iran) to commission a nuclear power reactor. Now the UAE’s fourth reactor is under construction. Egypt is following suit and recently started the construction of a four-unit nuclear reactor based on Russian technology. In addition, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have committed to plans centered on Small Modular Reactors and uranium extraction and mining.
There are undoubtedly legitimate motives behind this growing interest in nuclear power. Concerns about climate change and energy security are causing some countries to reconsider nuclear energy, and the developers of new reactor designs are promising lower capital costs and improved safety. Even for oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, the nuclear energy option remains economically attractive, given that regional power demand is projected to rise by at least 40 percent by 2030. Furthermore, desalination using nuclear power is a possible way out of water scarcity for a region characterized by extremely high water risk.
Regional security concerns. Considering the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and a changing security landscape that features active insurgencies, the projected growth in nuclear power creates security complications. Critical nuclear power infrastructure will be an attractive target for violent non-state actors. Over the past decade, these actors have proved to be well-organized.
In 2012, the computer virus Shamoon was used to target Saudi Aramco in one of the most destructive cyberattacks in the region. Similarly, according to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, between 2015 and 2021 the Houthis, an Iran-aligned militia, fired 430 ballistic missiles and launched 851 drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, targeting oil facilities. The same militia attacked the UAE’s capital in 2022 and threatened to target its nuclear power plant earlier. A nuclear disaster in the world’s busiest oil shipping area, the Arabian Gulf, would put one-third of the world’s oil production and the global economy at risk.
For nuclear and other dual-use technologies, sabotage is not the only concern. Theft and trafficking, whether for profit or terrorism, are highly possible. For transnational armed non-state actors, ungoverned areas under conflict create favorable circumstances for such activities.
By 2017, Daesh, also known as ISIS, controlled approximately 45,377 square kilometers of territory and 2.5 million people in Iraq and Syria—larger than Denmark or Switzerland. The terrorist group was able to secretly develop the first non-state actor’s chemical weapons program; tried to acquire radioactive materials; and operated the largest smuggling network in the region, including routes for weapons transfers.
In such a risky environment, any nuclear power program must adopt extra measures to prevent theft or sabotage, based on regular risk assessments. Furthermore, these nuclear security and safety risks necessitate cross-border cooperation, with Middle Eastern countries maintaining effective channels for collaboration on emergency preparedness and crisis management. This could also increase transparency about nuclear activities and reduce the risk of a nuclear arms race.
Nuclear proliferation and changing geopolitics. Historically, superpower rivalry during the Cold War influenced regional ambitions for nuclear weapons. But only after 1967, when Israel was believed to have secretly developed the region’s first nuclear weapons, did countries like Iraq and Libya seek the bomb (and fail to obtain it). The risk of nuclear proliferation rose again in the early 2000s, when Iran’s suspicious nuclear activities came to light. That risk grew further after the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Troubled by the idea of a nuclear weapon controlled by Tehran, Saudi Arabia promised to seek a nuclear bomb as soon as possible if Iran developed one.
Arab states have been suspicious of Iran’s nuclear program since day one, but what makes them much more alarmed now is skepticism about the US commitment to their security. Mistrust between Gulf states and the United States grew after the 2019 Houthis’ major attack on Saudi oil facilities, which cut oil production in half and shocked the global market. Dissatisfied by the US response, Gulf states started questioning US regional security guarantees. President Joe Biden’s administration got off on the wrong foot with Gulf states by reconsidering security concessions promised by the Trump’s administration, including arms sales.
The Gulf states find Biden’s “democracies good, non-democracies bad” view, as presented in the National Security Strategy released in October, alarming in two aspects: First, as part of the non-democracies group, Arab states are being offered a second-class partnership that comes with fewer benefits and lower credibility. Second, the region is being deprioritized on the US foreign policy agenda, with less US involvement in, and liability for, regional security.
Tensions rose even more following the OPEC decision to cut oil production, after which the United States accused Gulf states of siding with Russia in the Ukraine war. Amid calls to halt arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, the United States canceled a key meeting with the Gulf states on integrated air and missile defense, and promised to re-evaluate the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
As a result of these developments, Arabs—and Gulf states in particular—started to believe they should shore up the region’s security independently and explore nontraditional strategies and partnerships. Thus it was not surprising to see a recent de-escalation deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China and, earlier, Riyadh holding three summits with China, paving the way for cooperation on a wide range of issues, including defense, security, and nuclear energy.
Is Saudi Arabia the next nuclear weapons state? Recently, the last chances to salvage the Iranian deal seemed to vanish, as Iran decided to massively expand uranium enrichment to 60 percent at its Fordow underground facility. In response, the Saudi foreign minister warned that “all bets are off” if Iran gets the bomb and vowed that Gulf states would act to reinforce their security. But what does “all bets are off” entail? And how far could the Saudis and other Gulf states go?
For the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has shown interest in nuclear energy and sought cooperation with major exporters of nuclear power technology. Recent updates about the Saudi atomic project show progress on human resources development, regulatory frameworks, and preliminary studies for nuclear power projects. However, the country has no substantial nuclear-related infrastructure, not even a research reactor.
Speculation about Saudi Arabia seeking the bomb are built on three observations. First, the Kingdom refuses to follow the UAE’s “gold standard” by signing the 123 agreement and giving up the right to enrich uranium. As part of its nonproliferation policy, the United States demands that partners sign the agreement in exchange for receiving the technology and nuclear materials needed for nuclear energy projects. Saudi Arabia’s hesitance to sign the agreement could be a red flag. Still, enriching uranium is a sovereign right that many countries with clean records of peaceful nuclear activities have practiced.
Second, a 2020 report on secret cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia on uranium mining and extraction brought more attention to the Saudis’ activities. Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to develop its own nuclear fuel for peaceful and commercial purposes have been no secret. While this is a legitimate right granted under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the history of nuclear secrecy makes some states doubtful. Yet it is essential to recognize that the product of uranium mining and extraction, yellow cake, is produced commercially in over 20 countries worldwide, and it is a long way from weapons-grade uranium.
Finally, Saudi Arabia has yet to sign the International Atomic Energy Agency additional protocol, which allows the agency to search for undeclared nuclear activities. In principle, Riyadh does not reject the protocol, as it already has a safeguards agreement in force with the agency since 2009. But Saudi Arabia has little reason to sign the additional protocol, given that its nuclear activities are minimal.
None of these observations prove that Saudi Arabia is seeking the bomb. In the absence of technical expertise and basic nuclear infrastructure, Saudi Arabia is far from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Considering the acute threat from Iran and the skepticism about US security guarantees, Saudi Arabia could be aiming for nuclear hedging: not now, but not never. Based on the hedging theory, countries like Saudi Arabia would pursue the bomb if allies’ security guarantees vanished. So, is the US security assurance for Arab states sufficient? For now, the answer is still yes.
A solution within reach. In the Middle East, the predominant approach for dealing with nuclear proliferation is problematic. It narrowly focuses on predicting the next possible proliferator while ignoring root causes that may make proliferation inevitable. From a realistic point of view, a spiral effect of proliferation is highly likely if security threats continue to exist while trust among rivals is missing.
In particular, Israel’s secret nuclear weapons continue to be perceived as a threat by some countries in the region. As a result, Israel’s nuclear program contributes to proliferation as much as Iranian nuclear activities do. As long as compliance is not required from all countries, rivals may find themselves with no option, from a security perspective, but to pursue weaponization. Only a comprehensive approach will be effective and sustainable.
Despite its shortcomings and the obstacles in its path, the UN General Assembly-mandated Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction remains the most promising option to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region while securing the right for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Similar to the five existing nuclear-weapon-free zones, but with an extended scope to reinforce the global ban on chemical and biological weapons, a negotiated and inclusive Middle East zone could incorporate a robust compliance verification system complemented with nuclear security arrangements and possibly a joint nuclear fuel cycle in which enrichment is collectively overseen to ensure transparency.
Discussions on the proposed zone are held annually and open to all concerned states, including Israel, Iran, and the five nuclear weapon states. However, the zone is no closer to realization than it was in 1974, when first proposed by Egypt and Iran.
Persuading all countries in the region, particularly Israel, to adopt a WMD-free zone will be difficult. But revitalizing the proposal and showing political commitment from the international community, including the United States and European Union, is timely and more needed than ever.
Editor’s note: This article is an adaption of a paper presented at the International Student/Young Pugwash (ISYP) Third Nuclear Age conference in November 2022. Selected participants had the opportunity to submit their work for publication by the Bulletin, which was one of ISYP’s partners for the conference.
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Keywords: Saudi Arabia, nuclear power, proliferation
Topics: Biosecurity, Chemical Weapons, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Weapons, Opinion, Voices of Tomorrow
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