Ambitions in Saudi Arabia for a nuclear programme may have seemingly started in the 2006 announcement of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in which they affirmed their common project to study the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Among other states in the commission were Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar. Two months later, an agreement was formed with the IAEA on a Saudi-led study of the possibility and feasibility of a nuclear programme in the Middle East. Two years later, Saudi Arabia divulged its will to proceed with a national nuclear programme aiming for the renewable atomic energy to replace for the traditional fossil fuels in producing electricity and diminishing the reliance on hydrocarbon resources.
An alternative narrative, nevertheless, dates the Saudi quest for nuclear programme back to the 1970s when Riyadh started a secret cooperation with Pakistan to counter Israeli and Indian nuclear threats. During a visit to Pakistan in 1974, the Saudi royal government found the chance to have a meeting with Pakistan’s major theoretical physicists and convince them to join the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. Ever since the meeting, the Saudi Kingdom, enjoying close ties with Pakistan, has been alleged with sponsoring Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
The country has made many attempts during the 2010s to proceed with nuclear programmes through multiple MoUs and agreements with various countries under the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, known as KA-CARE. In 2011, the KA-CARE announced a plan to build 16 nuclear power reactors until 2030, while revising the plan two years later projecting 17 GWe of nuclear capacity until 2032. Two years later, the target date was delayed for another eight years. Since then, the KA-CARE has kept revising its plans, projects and dates due to curious reasons further reinforcing the theory that attaining a nuclear capability without an agreement with the United States would be milking the ram.
With the normalization attempts taking resonance about the Kingdom, the Saudi nuclear programme entered into a new phase. As the main broker and facilitator of the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the United States started to propose financial and security privileges for Riyadh to take the risk of normalizing ties with a state that the whole Arab community, including Saudi citizens, are at odds with. Apart from topics like the Palestinian rights to their lands and the future of a Palestinian statehood, Riyadh also focused on an agreement with Washington boosting its attempts to establish the national nuclear project.
The United States nuclear agreements with non-nuclear states are normally structured based on section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, generally known as “123 agreements”. According to the 123 agreements, the target nations will be deprived of the capability to enrich Uranium or reprocess plutonium locally and should be subject to the additional protocols of the IAEA to ensure the programme will not redirect to take a military dimension any time in the future. A 123 agreement with United Arab Emirates in 2009 adopted these measures to secure the peaceful nature of the activities.
Riyadh’s requirements during the talks with American delegates surpasses the provisions of the 123 agreements to safeguard the activities inside Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is yet to adopt the comprehensive safeguards agreement that were introduced in 2005 to make for the deficiencies of “small quantities protocol,” let alone the additional protocols that are even more intrusive. Besides, Saudi leaders want some of the non-proliferation restrictions lifted in their agreement with the United States, including the enrichment and reprocessing inside Saudi soils. With these requirements at work during the talks, the ball is in American court.
For the United States, the Saudi nuclear programme negotiation is directed by two regional and trans-regional issues. First, Washington’s will to lead the de-facto leader of Arab world into a normalization of ties with its main regional ally is a drive that both sides are truly aware of. Although the efforts halted after Hamas’ October 7 attack and the ongoing Gaza war, the prospects of a grand agreement that could impact the geopolitics of the whole region is still in sight. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have welcomed a potential agreement considering its economic and security interests. Second, Washington has inflicted extensive losses after leaving the leadership role vacant to rivals during the Trump era. A similar approach towards Saudi nuclear programme may mean losing the battle to its main strategic rival, China, who has signaled vigilance on the issue. Such a Saudi-China deal would most probably receive the Israeli support in the long run due to its far-reaching economic interests on the one side and security benefits on the other.
Biden administration will face local obstacles if it abides with some of the Saudi ambitious requirements over its nuclear programme. The already negative signal by the representatives takes significance due to the fact that any agreement outside the nine nonproliferation criteria must receive a resolution of approval in the Congress. An October 4 letter by Sixteen Democrat Senators obliged the government to move forward with the “gold standard” in any future agreement with Saudi Arabia. The gold standard bounds the other party to the agreement to forgo the right to enrichment locally and accept the additional protocol of the IAEA. The US Congress was further concerned after a Saudi Crown Prince’s interview with Fox News in which he reiterated a former remark about Saudi’s insistence on accessing nuclear bomb to counter a potential threat from Iran. Saudi Arabia has been an intense critic of the 2015 world powers’ nuclear agreement with Tehran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Brokered by China, Riyadh and Tehran have improved ties following multiple years of strained relationship over a series of issues. Despite that, Tehran is still considered the main regional rival for Saudi Arabia, posing a potential threat in case it reaches military nuclear capabilities.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have to find a way out of the impasse in their talks to reach a nuclear agreement. The White House faces a critical election year ahead and any agreement will have a tough time passing in the politics-stricken Congress. Settling the Israel issue, ironically, may reinforce the democratic campaign on their way to secure more ballots. The twofold may endow the rulers in Riyadh the upper hand in future talks, currently on hold due to the war in Gaza.
In Saudi Arabia, there is evidently a will to establish a national nuclear programme. The kingdom means to enrich uranium and reprocess Plutonium while renounces the additional protocol, hesitantly accepting the talks for comprehensive safeguards agreement with IAEA. In a similar condition two decades ago, Israel would be one of the forerunners of assaults against Riyadh for its nuclear ambitions. Tel Aviv changed its policy to secure normalization, as did Washington due to a grand strategic competition: The modern world is guided by interests.