A top US energy official said this week in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia expects to generate nuclear power within 10 years. Egypt will invite tenders for its first nuclear plant later this month. And Kuwait this week not only launched a feasibility study aimed at having nuclear power as early as 2020, it bought a 4.8 percent stake in French Areva, the world’s top reactor supplier.
That follows Jordan’s ongoing march to enrich uranium and to build a power plant and the United Arab Emirates’ years-old program aimed at completing its first nuclear power plant by 2017. Syria is believed to have been working on setting up its own nuclear plant before it was destroyed by Israelis.
Each country is in a different stage and not all will be successful, but few doubt that Arab countries will inevitably join the nuclear power frenzy sooner or later. It’s a question of economics, all countries say pointing to their insufficient power capacity and lack of options. But a driving force is unquestionably Iran’s nuclear program.
“There’s no doubt that there is rising interest in nuclear power in the Middle East,” said Charles K. Ebinger, senior fellow and director of the Energy Security Initiative in the Brookings Institute. “I think the reality is that all these countries will pursue this for energy security reasons. There’s an interest to address power demand and water desalination efforts.”
“But in light of Iranian situation we would be fooling ourselves if we deny there’s not a prospect of another motivation, which is to train their nationals to build weapons of their own if they feel threatened,” Ebinger said.
Most Arab countries have signed cooperation agreements with nuclear powers, including the US, France, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan. Qatar is also mulling developing a nuclear program, as is Bahrain, and there is ongoing talk to share a regional program in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-country alliance in the Persian Gulf.
The need to rapidly boost power capacity is real and there are no alternative sources, other than oil, which is significantly more valuable, sold in international markets, as long as crude prices remain about $80 a barrel, Kuwait estimated. Only Qatar has enough indigenous gas resources.
The UAE and Oman already import gas supplies. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are burning millions of barrels of oil a day to meet demand, and Kuwait already suffers from blackouts. Egypt, which generates three quarters of its power with gas, will deplete its fields in 20 years. Jordan already imports 95 percent of its gas.
The question is whether Arab countries will follow the UAE in signing the so-called 1-2-3 agreements with Washington to access US nuclear technology on the condition that they forego enrichment and reprocessing, the two technologies that could be diverted for military purposes, as many believe Iran is doing.
Under International Atomic Energy Agency treaties, countries have the right to develop uranium enrichment, as long as they sign on to non-proliferation treaties. Egypt, for example, has said it intends to pursue enrichment. Jordan, with huge uranium deposits, said it will do the same in an effort to eventually become a regional supplier.
The more concerning case is Saudi Arabia, the regional powerhouse that rivals Iran. Riyadh recently agreed to buy up to $60 billion worth of American advanced weaponry to counter its enemy’s might. The Wikileaks documents exposed Arab concern over Iran’s nuclear program and support for a military campaign to derail Tehran, contradicting official Arab policy.
Earlier this week U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez said Saudis “seem to be very committed to having civil nuclear as part of what generates energy for them and to do it relatively quickly, like within the next 10 years.” Sanchez said he saw “wonderful opportunities” for American companies, which implies Riyadh would forego enrichment.
But while Saudi Arabia has said they won’t pursue enrichment, they “included enrichment in terms of reference” of a contract signed with the French company helping the country map its nuclear future, said Ebinger.
For the time being, it appears only the UAE and Egypt nuclear power programs are set in stone. Analysts say there is a lot of politics directed at Iran in the Arab march toward nuclear power. “I think there’s that message implied that they will not fall behind. They are saying they will not fall behind technologically and they will keep their weapons issue open,” Ebinger said.