Saudi Arabia building nuclear reactor

Saudi Arabia is building a small reactor in its drive to divest from hydrocarbon fuelled electricity. The move brings questions of regional nuclear proliferation to the forefront. 

Background

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most powerful players in the Arab world. It is an oil-dependent nation with the second-largest proven petroleum reserves and is the largest exporter of the fuel. However, fluctuating oil prices, steadily declining reserves and environmental concerns, has led the country to seek divestment from oil. The ruling Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly on political, economic and military power and is currently ruled by King Salman, although true power is thought to lie with the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shi’ite country that is Saudi Arabia’s largest normative, political and military rival and has consistently sought nuclear weapons in order to secure an effective deterrent. While Iran has yet to completely weaponise its nuclear platform, it possesses conventional capabilities to strike regional targets. If Iran were to successfully weaponise, it would possess delivery capabilities.

Despite the differences between the two countries, Saudi Arabia, an ultraconservative Islamic absolute monarchy, and the US, a secular constitutional republic, have been close military and economic partners. Saudi Arabia has relied on the US for high-quality arms, while the US has maintained ties with the Islamic country for economic gain and for its energy requirements. The US has recently allowed six nuclear companies to engage in discussions with Saudi Arabia over nuclear technology. 

Analysis

Recent satellite energy has shown that a nuclear reactor under construction close to Riyadh, is only months from completion - according to a former director of nuclear inspections at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The revelation has led to fears of an escalation of tensions between the Saudis and the Iranians. The IAEA has asked that Saudi authorities submit to safeguards to verify that the technology is used explicitly for peaceful purposes. Analysts believe that the nuclear reactor is small and is intended to facilitate research, although it is possible that the facility builds indigenous capabilities towards nuclear weaponry. 

Saudi Arabia signed the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) in 1989. However, in its ratification, it exempted itself from inspections through a regulation called the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP). The SQP is a safeguard agreement which suspends many regulatory applications for states with little or no nuclear material. In 2005, the IAEA altered the specifications for the model, which Saudi subsequently refused to acquiesce to. This lack of transparency brings to the forefront questions of whether the Saudi push towards nuclear technology is for civilian or military purposes. In light of a belligerent Iran, it is conceivable that Saudi Arabia wants to secure nuclear weapons of its own and its position on IAEA safeguards makes it difficult to enforce the NPT. 

The Trump administration has maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia while propagating transfers of technology. The move is to be seen in the light of the failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, where a Saudi Arabia capable of deterring the Iranian nuclear threat in their own backyard is conducive to American ends. 

On the macro-scale, external powers stand variably positioned on Saudi’s potential drive to nuclear technology. Countries such as Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States likely view with favour any transfer of technology, believing it to be an economic opportunity. However, history shows that it is possible for a country to hide its nuclear advances towards a nuclear weapon. In a vast country like Saudi Arabia, aided by exponential capital, this continues to be a potential recourse. In addition, Israel could view with favour Saudi Arabia gaining nuclear technology. Some sources have reported that Tel Aviv believes that Riyadh will eventually pursue nuclear weaponry and want to ensure that it will not approach a state like Pakistan for assistance. These sources believe that Israel sees with the favour of another country in the region that can oppose Iran. 

Counterpoint

The Trump administration is likely to face push-back over nuclear engagement with Saudi Arabia from within the Republican Party. If Mr. Trump cannot build consensus within the Party on the issue, it is likely that Saudi Arabia will turn to other countries in order to secure its end.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Saudi Arabia will eventually secure nuclear technology, regardless of its source. We feel that the Trump administration will continue to push for American-led nuclear initiatives in Saudi, believing it to be economically propitious. The administration is likely to believe it to be prudent to check Saudi nuclear capabilities on its own, lest it falls into the hands of a strategic rival. We believe that Saudi Arabia’s hesitancy to allow inspection regimes is not congruent with its stated desire to attain peaceful nuclear technology. We estimate that the ongoing construction of a small reactor near Riyadh is unlikely to yield nuclear weapons. However, should the state desire a nuclear weapons program, the under-construction reactor provides invaluable hands-on experience.

Image Courtesy - Peter Dowley [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

 

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