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Saudi Arabia and the nuclear temptation

Kersten Knipp | Siham Ouchtou
February 25, 2019

Will the US soon supply Saudi Arabia with civilian nuclear technology? If the kingdom possessed it, it could destabilize the entire region, to the concern of countries such as Israel.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with US President Donald Trump
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/SPA

Is he doing it or not? US lawmakers want to look into whether US President Donald Trump is seeking to advance the sale of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. "Multiple whistleblowers" have warned of a possibly indictable conflict of interests, the House of Representatives committee in charge of investigations said this week. Its members fear that the kingdom could use the US technology to build an atom bomb, something they say could escalate tensions between Riyadh and its archrival, Tehran.

But how big is the step from a civilian use of nuclear energy to a military one? Both technologies are "so closely connected with one another that they can scarcely be separated," according to a paper issued by the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). "Knowledge, materials and technology can be obtained with the civilian use of nuclear technology that can also be used for a military atomic program."

However, the kingdom is not primarily interested in the military use of atomic energy, says the Saudi Arabia expert Sebastian Sons from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), who is also a senior researcher at the Bonn research institute Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). He says that Riyadh is under considerable economic pressure. According to Sons, Saudi Arabia is trying to lose its economic dependence on oil, whose export still makes up 80 percent of the state's revenue. The expert told DW that the country had been endeavoring for some time to diversify its energy economy. "There are massive efforts, with the field of nuclear energy also playing a major role," he said, adding that Saudi Arabia was reliant here on cooperation with other partners, especially the US.

Oil field in Saudi Arabia with equipment in foreground and tower with flame on top in the background
Oil is still Saudi Arabia's most important source of revenueImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Haider

Although Saudi Arabia was currently not yet in a position to produce nuclear energy without international partners, Sons said, the country was generally seeking to become as independent as possible in this advanced technology. In March 2018, the kingdom launched a National Atomic Energy Program, which envisages building at least 16 nuclear power plants over the coming 20 years. "Big state companies like Saudi Aramco play a very decisive role here. Aramco would, of course, certainly be one of the most important players in advancing nuclear energy," Sons said.

Read more: SIPRI: Nuclear weapons are still being developed

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An unstable region

The topic of nuclear energy has caused anxiety in the region for years. That anxiety was first triggered by the nuclear program run by Iran, which is Saudi Arabia's biggest rival in the region. Ever since the Iranian government intensively tried to develop its atomic technology, Saudi Arabia has also considered this option.

Now the US has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, the Iranian government is looking toward Riyadh with particular mistrust. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has voiced biting criticism on Twitter, accusing the US of hypocrisy in its treatment of Iran.

Read moreIran sanctions: 5 things to know 

Israeli reservations

Israel has also been critical of Saudi Arabia's potential nuclear plans. The two countries have recently drawn closer, motivated by their mutual opposition to Iran. But Israel takes a skeptical view of the kingdom's nuclear ambitions. The Israeli political analyst Yoni Ben Menahem told DW that Israel was fundamentally against an Arab state gaining possession of nuclear technology.

This also went for Saudi Arabia, he said. "You never know who could take power there some time. If extremist movements take control they could use the civilian nuclear program for military purposes as well," Ben Menahem said. According to him, the presence of nuclear technologies in Saudi Arabia could encourage other states in the region to try and gain this technology as well. "And that means the region could enter into a nuclear arms race," Ben Menahem said.

Nuclear power plant in UAE
A nuclear power plant is already being built in UAE, Saudi Arabia's neighborImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation/A. Girija

Sebastian Sons sees the same danger. He recalled that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had said his country would have to react if Iran took up its nuclear program again. "This is an option that is being discussed in Saudi Arabia. They see themselves obliged to be armed," he said. If the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalated further, Sons said, it would undermine the stability of the entire region.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East