Stephen Russo – Middle Eastern Analyst
Updated as of 28 December 2017
Posted: 1 January 2018
It is highly likely that Saudi Arabia will increase tensions with Iran by moving forward with its planned nuclear program due to its desire to acquire the same enrichment capabilities as its Middle East rival and moving forward with enriching its own uranium. Saudi Arabia announced its plan to build its first civil nuclear power reactor as part of its new plan to diversify its energy portfolio to get away from its dependence on oil for energy purposes. As part of its plan, Saudi Arabia has already reached out to firms in the US, Russia, South Korea, China, France, and Japan.
The US and Saudi Arabia have engaged in previous attempts to come to an agreement on providing nuclear power to Saudi Arabia as part of a civil program. In these previous attempts, Saudi Arabia has rejected the agreements due to Saudi Arabia’s refusal to sign the 123 agreement, which blocks steps in fuel production with potential bomb-making uses, including the enrichment stage, even though the US has four dozen 123 Agreements with other countries. Saudi Arabia has said it won’t sign a deal which prohibits it from enriching uranium in the future.
In addition, these discussions led to Saudi Arabia articulating its desire to have the same enrichment capabilities as Iran. Recently, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, said Saudi Arabia should be allowed to enrich uranium, within the rules of the global nonproliferation treaty, “so the kingdom, from that point of view, will have the same right as the other members [of the nonproliferation treaty], including Iran.” Back in October, Saudi Arabia announced it would begin enriching uranium in a move towards “self-sufficiency” in producing atomic fuel. This move allows Saudi Arabia to act quickly on building its nuclear facilities. And with this type of move, it could spark additional controversy with Iran, as it is still barred from developing nuclear weapons under the agreement it reached with the US. Some analysts believe this is a strategic move by Saudi Arabia to continue its rivalry with Iran.
The announcement of Saudi Arabia’s civil nuclear program comes at a time when the country is making a move away from its dependence on oil. Per the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy, Saudi Arabia is looking to reduce oil and gas’ share of the energy sector from 75% to 40%. Saudi officials say that the country is looking to become more sustainable, following international accords and trends. In addition, Saudi’s energy consumption has increased by 150% over the last decade, and the country needs additional energy solutions. The current plan for Riyadh is to build 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2032, the equivalent of around 16 reactors.
Currently, there are reports of multiple US firms interested in bidding for the first projects, as well as at least one Russian firm having already created a roadmap for its nuclear project. One of the major reasons why US companies have jumped at the chance to work with Saudi Arabia is because of the moratorium on building new nuclear power plants in the US. In addition, the value of the Saudi reactors is valued at $10 billion, with additional projects being valued at tens of billions more.
Analytic confidence for this analysis was moderate. No specific structured analytic method was used. There was strong agreement between sources with little to no conflict among the sources. Most sources were updated or written within the last month. The analyst’s expertise in Middle East politics is minimal, and the work was done alone. The task complexity was moderately complex.