Nuclear deal likely to prompt a Middle East arms race?

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah in July 2022
Will there be a nuclear agreement between the USA and Saudi Arabia? U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah in July 2022 (image: BANDAR ALGALOUD/REUTERS)

One part of a predicted, closer U.S.-Saudi relationship is particularly controversial. Experts fear Saudi Arabia may use a civilian nuclear energy programme, supported by the U.S., to develop their own atomic bombs

By Cathrin Schaer

Last week, several media reports suggested that Saudi Arabia was on the verge of a "mega deal" with the United States.

Bombastic phrases like a "mega deal" or a "grand bargain" are being used because the agreement would bring the U.S. and the Saudis closer in significant ways, including in a mutual defence pact and through cooperation on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and a civilian nuclear programme.

Such a deal was originally supposed to be closely tied to the normalisation of Saudi Arabia's relations with ael. However, with the Saudis insistent that any normalisation include Israeli recognition of a path towards Palestinian statehood and the Israelis equally insistent that they don't want that, normalisation has been put on hold.

Instead, according to various reports published by the likes of ReutersThe New York Times, the UK's Financial Times and The Guardian since the start of May, the "mega deal" between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is likely still going ahead – just without Israel.

Nuclear energy summit in Brussels in March with IAEA Director Rafael Grossi, Saudi Prince Mamdouh Bin Saud Bin and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (from left)
Nuclear power instead of oil: nuclear energy summit in Brussels in March with IAEA Director Rafael Grossi, Saudi Prince Mamdouh Bin Saud Bin and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (from left) (image: Bianca Otero/ZUMA Press/picture alliance)

Focus on nuclear cooperation

The exact details are not known, but any deal is likely to involve cooperation on Saudi Arabia's long-held ambitions for civilian nuclear energy, a way for the country to diversify away from oil. Many analysts say this is among the most likely-to-happen aspects of a "mega deal" – and also among the most controversial.

The controversy stems from the fact that the Saudis are determined to enrich uranium on their own soil, said Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington. The technology used for uranium enrichment produces fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but can also result in uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.

"Saudi Arabia is adamant on [this]," Kelsey said. "Riyadh will walk away from a nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington before it forgoes enrichment."

Last September, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman created international headlines when he said if Iran, his country's regional rival, manages to get a nuclear bomb, then Saudi Arabia will need one, too.

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

Concerns about a nuclear arms race in the region

As reports about a U.S.-Saudi deal started coming out in early May, U.S. Senator Edward Markey wrote to President Joe Biden.

"I fear that Saudi Arabia – a nation with a terrible human rights record – cannot be trusted to use its civil nuclear energy programme solely for peaceful purposes and will instead enrich uranium and seek to develop nuclear weapons," argued Markey, co-chair of his government's nuclear weapons and arms control working group.

Besides fears that the Saudis might end up with nuclear bombs, there are also concerns that simply permitting them to enrich uranium would set off a regional race.

"Allowing Saudi Arabia to acquire such capabilities could set a problematic precedent at the international level. It could possibly encourage other countries in the region, such as Egypt or Turkey, to pursue similar nuclear capabilities, leading to a proliferation cascade in an already volatile Middle East," Manuel Herrera, a researcher focused on nuclear non-proliferation at Istituto Affari Internazionali, an Italian thinktank, wrote late last year.

Herrera and other experts hope that if a Saudi civilian nuclear programme happens, the U.S. government will enforce strict guardrails. 

These might include deferring uranium enrichment inside Saudi Arabia until later or setting up an enrichment facility that only American citizens can access. It could also include allowing a Saudi-based conversion plant to turn refined uranium powder into gas, but not enriching uranium.

The Saudis could also be asked to adhere to conditions, including signing on to specific non-proliferation criteria under Section 123 of the U.S. 1954 Atomic Energy Act and agreeing to additional inspections by the Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

"As far as we know, the U.S. is trying to put forward a deal very similar to the one that they did with the United Arab Emirates in 2009, in which they applied Section 123," Herrera explained in interview last week. However, the Saudis have previously said no to that.

The role of Israel

"The assumption has been that the various elements [of a U.S.-Saudi agreement] would be mutually reinforcing," Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, wrote in an April briefing.

"For example, normalisation would make nuclear cooperation with [Saudi Arabia] more palatable to Israel, and a U.S. security guarantee and nuclear cooperation would make normalisation more palatable to [Saudi Arabia]."

But now that Israel is not involved, analysts say the "mega deal" may be another way to pressure the Israeli government. Israel's allies, including the United States, have been pushing Israeli leaders towards a different, more careful approach in Gaza. The Israeli government has previously said it doesn't want the Saudis to get any kind of uranium enrichment capacities. 

U.S. outbidding China?

However, there are also other equally significant motives for U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation. As Davenport of the Arms Control Association pointed out, Saudi Arabia's interest in nuclear energy predates the "push for a broader Israeli-Saudi normalisation".

"And there are also some other countries who have been putting offers on the table," said Herrera, referring to China. If a US-Saudi nuclear deal goes ahead, this would sideline any Chinese influence in this area. From a commercial perspective, it would also result in healthy contracts for U.S. companies.

The recent progress on a U.S.-Saudi deal also has a lot to do with upcoming U.S. elections, Davenport argued. "The Biden administration wants an agreement before the presidential election."

Other experts have suggested that closer cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. may also mean the Americans have more influence over Saudi Arabian decisions on oil prices. The U.S. government would obviously prefer these to stay lower in the run-up to elections.

But could a deal still end up causing a nuclear race of some kind in the Middle East?

"There is a risk … if you give one actor access to this technology, then the race will be on," Herrera agreed. But he thinks that, with sufficient guardrails and monitoring in place, risks could be minimised.

Davenport is not as sure. "It's not inevitable that there will be a proliferation cascade in the region, but Saudi enrichment does make it more likely."

And all that is heightened "by the disintegration of great power unity on preventing proliferation and the stress facing the broader nuclear order," she concluded, referring to increasing threats to use nuclear weapons, such as in Ukraine, or to launch them into outer space.

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2024