As interest towards obtaining nuclear technology is increasing among countries in the Middle East region, there are signs that Saudi Arabia might be willing to own nuclear weapons.
The increasing interest in nuclear technology among the Middle East countries, along with the fact that Israel is already possessing dozens of nuclear bombs, has created serious concerns about the nuclear proliferation crisis in the region.
What adds to the concerns in this regard is that there are legitimate motives behind the growing interest of the Middle East countries in nuclear energy. Concern about climate change and energy security is one of the main and most justified reasons for countries to have a sufficient legal reason for wanting to go nuclear.
Given that electricity demand in the Middle East is expected to increase by at least 40 percent by 2030, even for oil-rich countries in the region, nuclear power is an economically attractive option. In addition, since according to numerous reports from international organizations, the Middle East will soon be one of the driest regions in the world, using nuclear technology to sweeten sea water is another justification for countries to acquire nuclear technology.
According to various estimates, the number of nuclear states in the Middle East is expected to increase in the next decade. In 2021, the United Arab Emirates became the second country in the region (after Iran) to operate a nuclear power reactor. Now the fourth reactor of the UAE is already under construction. Egypt is following suit and has recently begun construction of a four-unit nuclear reactor based on Russian nuclear technology. In addition, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have officially announced their intention to build small nuclear reactors and even extract domestic uranium.
Saudi Arabi, a country with high ambitions to go nuclear
But among all the countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is more likely to reach nuclear technology. In the past two decades, the country has shown great interest in nuclear energy and has sought cooperation with major exporters of nuclear technology. The latest reports from the Saudi nuclear project show significant progress in the development of human resources, regulatory frameworks and preliminary studies for the construction of nuclear power facilities.
In addition, Saudi authorities have repeatedly expressed their interest in nuclear power reactors and uranium enrichment plants.
In January 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman announced that Saudi Arabia plans to expand its plans to develop nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure in light of the discovery of vast uranium reserves in the country. In a meeting in September 2022, bin Salman announced that Saudi Arabia intends to exploit its vast uranium resources in the “most transparent way”. In June 2011, Abdul Ghani bin Mulaibri, the coordinator of scientific cooperation in the Saudi Ministry of Science and Technology, announced at the Persian Gulf Environment Forum Saudi Arabia’s plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years and announced that this number of reactors, Finally, they will provide about 20% of the national electricity needs.
After Iran decided in December last year (2022) to increase uranium enrichment at the Fordow underground facility to 60%, the Saudi foreign minister responded by warning that if Iran builds a nuclear bomb, “we will abandon all considerations,” pledging that the countries of the Persian Gulf will take countermeasures to strengthen their security. In 2009, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia bluntly warned Dennis Ross, the US special envoy for the Middle East, that if Iran crossed the nuclear threshold, “we will get nuclear weapons.”
Also, in March 2018, in an interview with CBC News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that “without a doubt, if Iran builds a nuclear bomb, we will do the same as soon as possible.” Although nuclear reactors alone are not enough to build nuclear weapons, they can provide a suitable cover to hide a nuclear weapons program. This actually goes back to the dual nature of nuclear technology, meaning that countries can claim that they need uranium enrichment technology to fuel their research or power reactors, but instead use that enriched uranium for production of nuclear bombs.
In addition to Pakistan, which has good ties with Saudi Arabia, countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as France and South Korea, have expressed their interest in selling nuclear technology to Riyadh for nearly a decade, and the Kingdom has therefore a variety of choices ahead to supply the nuclear energy chain inside and go nuclear.