By James M. Dorsey
Controversy in South Korea over a secret military clause in a nine-year old agreement to build the United Arab Emirates’ first nuclear reactor raises a Pandora’s Box of questions about political and military demands that Arab nations may seek to impose as they embark on a nuclear trajectory.
The clause that commits South Korean troops to come to the UAE’s defense in the event of a crisis offers insight into the security concerns of Arab and particularly Gulf leaders. It is not clear whether the clause defines a crisis exclusively as a military attack by an external force or would also include domestic unrest.
The agreement that was long kept under lid to shield the government from having to seek parliamentary approval was concluded at a time that the UAE was negotiating a deal with Erik Prince, the founder of since-defunct controversial private security firm Blackwater.
The $529 million contract with Mr. Prince was to create a mercenary force populated by Africans and Latin Americans that would "conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts." The force was disbanded after The New York Times disclosed its existence in 2011, the year the Middle East was swept by popular revolts.
The Korean agreement calls for the permanent presence in the UAE of a small contingent of South Korean special forces dubbed Akh, the Arabic word for brother, that trains its Emirati counterparts, participates in joint exercises and would be committed to combat in times of crisis.
It is, according to Korean opposition member of parliament, Kim Jong-dae, one of six secret military deals concluded as part of the nuclear reactor agreement.
Mr. Kim said the UAE recently reacted angrily to a decision by current President Moon Jae-in to suspend the clause providing for a South Korean military presence in the Gulf state.
The UAE is on track to this year become the first Arab state with an operational nuclear reactor.
The UAE response suggested that the Gulf state, despite earning the nickname Little Sparta as a result of its military prowess demonstrated in Yemen and elsewhere in the last decade and its proliferation of military bases in southern Arabia and East Africa, continues to feel a need for foreign military assistance in times of crisis.
The Middle East and North Africa, almost a decade after the Korean agreement was signed, is embroiled in civil wars, military interventions, debilitating proxy wars, and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts with the introduction of austerity measures and social reforms that have so far failed to address one of the region’s most urgent issues: job creation in a part of the world that at 30% percent boasts the world’s highest youth unemployment rate.
Governments across the region have sought to control simmering pent-up anger and frustration, similar to popular sentiment in the run-up to the 2011 revolts, with increased repression. Arab states from Algeria to Egypt and Jordan have nonetheless witnessed smaller scale protests against rising prices and cuts in public spending.
“The public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed,” warned Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
With governments concerned not only about domestic stability but also about the fallout of the region’s multiple conflicts, among which first and foremost proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the question arises whether Arab states pursuing nuclear technology will want to build broader security arrangements into their agreements as did the UAE with South Korea or ensure that there are less safeguards to prevent a move from peaceful to military applications of the technology.
Nuclear technology is certain to figure in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s talks this month during visits to Britain and the United States. Saudi Arabia has laid out the region’s biggest nuclear reactor programme that envisions the kingdom having 16 reactors by 2032 that would have 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said recently that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China, countries that likely would be more amenable than the United States to reduced safeguards and broader arrangements.
Yet, even the Trump administration appears willing to go easy on demanding that Saudi Arabia adhere to tough safeguards enshrined in US export control laws, widely viewed as the gold standard, in a bid to ensure that US companies get a piece of the pie.
Saudi Arabia has demanded the right to controlled enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, as part of any agreement to build its reactors.
The safeguards applied to the development of peaceful nuclear programs in the Middle East and North Africa and potential broader security arrangements Arab states may seek to build into agreements take on even greater significance at a time that the region is embroiled in a volatile, often bloody transition against a backdrop of stepped-up repression that leaves extremism as one of the few available release valves for pent-up anger.
As a result, the winners in the competition for lucrative nuclear contracts, the terms of those contracts, and potential associated security arrangements are likely to play a role in shaping the Middle East and North Africa’s evolving security architecture.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom