By James M. Dorsey
Unfettered Chinese support for Saudi Arabia’s so far peaceful nuclear energy program risks fueling a burgeoning Middle East arms race amid concerns that the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement is all but dead, Turkey suggesting it has the right to develop nuclear weapons, and Israel certain to not remain idle if nuclear proliferation becomes the name of the game.
Aided and abetted by China, the Middle East risks barreling towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race.
A disclosure in the last week that Saudi Arabia has constructed, with the help of China, a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium is the latest in a series of Chinese moves that advance the kingdom’s drive to acquire nuclear technology.
Saudi Arabia has denied building a yellowcake facility but insisted that mining its uranium reserves was part of its economic diversification strategy. The Saudi energy ministry said it was cooperating with China in unspecified aspects of uranium exploration.
The Saudi nuclear drive is likely to stiffen Iranian resolve, fuel Turkish ambitions, and heighten Israeli worries that its regional military superiority could be jeopardized.
For the past year, Iran has progressively walked away from commitments it made as part of a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions.
Saudi Arabia, despite denials, like Israel, fears that the United States will renegotiate the deal in ways that would fall short of providing iron clad guarantees that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons or enhanced ballistic missile capability or curb its support for militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
The fear is irrespective of whether Donald J. Trump or presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the November election in the United States.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned in 2018 that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
Faced with the prospect of a Saudi-Iranian nuclear arms race, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year insisted that it was unacceptable that nuclear-armed countries were preventing his nation from developing nuclear weapons.
Ironically, Chinese support for a peaceful Saudi nuclear program that inevitably would provide the kingdom with building blocks that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons risks driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The two countries have, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, forged close informal ties based on their shared animosity towards Iran and the kingdom’s effort to capitalize in Washington and elsewhere on being seen to engage with Israel as well as Jewish groups.
“For Israel, a Saudi nuclear military capability is a red line that it will be willing to enforce,” said Sigurd Neubauer, author of a just published book on Israeli-Gulf relations.
Saudi Arabia’s nuclear focus serves various goals: diversification of its economy, reduction of its dependence on fossil fuels, countering a potential future Iranian nuclear capability, and enhancing efforts to ensure that Saudi Arabia rather than Iran emerges as the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.
Cooperation on nuclear energy was one of 14 agreements worth US$65 billion signed during Saudi King Salman’s 2017 visit to China.
The nuclear-related deals involved a feasibility study for the construction of high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia as well as cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs to be built in the kingdom.
The agreement was one of a number of nuclear-related understandings concluded with China, including a uranium-related memorandum of understanding with China National Nuclear Corp., an agreement with China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp., and a 2012 accord to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Saudi Arabia has signed similar agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and Argentina.
To advance its pre-pandemic goal of constructing 16 nuclear reactors by 2030 at a cost of US$100 billion, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City devoted to research and application of nuclear technology.
Concern about Saudi intentions was fueled in the last 18 months by Saudi hesitancy to agree to US safeguards viewed as the nuclear industry’s gold standard that would require it among other things to sign the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Saudi Arabia has not ruled out signing the protocol.
The unease was further heightened by evidence that the kingdom was building a ballistic missile production site in a remote desert region. Satellite pictures suggested that the facility resembled a similar site of nuclear power in Pakistan.
Saudi cooperation with Pakistan has long been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition and the implications of its involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, said in an interview that he had no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.
“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions,” Mr. Khan said, referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested in a report published three years ago that “Pakistan may assist [Saudi Arabia] in . . . important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”
The report, referring to the Iran nuclear agreement, warned that “there is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns . . . if the deal fails.”
Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would initially focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce.
This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future. Saudi Arabia has in recent years significantly expanded graduate programs at its five nuclear research centers.
Saudi officials have repeatedly insisted that the kingdom is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes such as medicine, electricity generation, and desalination of sea water.
“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Institute said.
The report’s analysis suggests that China, by failing to impose restraints on its nuclear dealings similar to those maintained by the United States, may be contributing to a regional downward spiral that would be detrimental to Chinese interests in the longer term.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany.
An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia