Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
SAUDI Arabia has been exploring various options to sustain and endure its energy security. Recently, it announced to improve its nuclear infrastructure for increasing the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Being a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, Riyadh not only qualifies, but also has legitimate right to receive assistance from the Nuclear Supplier Nations under the safeguards of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Importantly, despite having immense oil reserves, the Saudis, Emiratis, Iranians etc. ruling elites have been contemplating to diversify their countries’ energy source. Therefore, they are contacting the Nuclear Supplier Nations, especially United States to purchase nuclear power reactors. Prior to the Islamic Revolution in Iran Washington assisted Tehran in the pursuit of nuclear technology and material. United Arab Emirates also constructed its nuclear power plant with the assistance of United States. Currently, Saudis are negotiating an agreement with Americans for purchasing nuclear reactors. Indeed, Americans assistance to these Gulf nations in the development of their nuclear programme is in their own economic interest. It gives opportunity to the American companies to sell and build nuclear reactors in these countries.
Presently, Riyadh is soliciting Washington for the sake of nuclear technological and material support. The Trump administration is also eager to win worth billions Saudi nuclear rectors’ contracts to alleviate United States nuclear industry. Americans had already supported United Arab Emirates in constructing its nuclear power plant. Therefore, it seems that United States would not have any problem in vending nuclear reactor to the Saudi Arabia for constructing nuclear power plant under the IAEA safeguards. Saudi Arab’s non-proliferation credentials are appropriate for purchasing nuclear reactors under the safeguards of IAEA. It has a comprehensive inspection agreement with the IAEA. It follows Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in letter and spirit. In September 2017, Riyadh voted for the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty at the United Nations. On March 13, 2018, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet while approving the national policy of the atomic energy programme once again reiterated to ‘limit all nuclear activities to peaceful purposes, within the limits defined by international treaties.’ So the Kingdom is qualified to advance its nuclear energy program within the framework laid down in the Article III and IV of NPT to save oil and gas reserves for a longer time.
The Kingdom planned to purchase 16 reactors to produce 17.6 gigawatts (GW) electricity by 2032. Being a party to the NPT, Riyadh qualifies to develop full-fuel cycle including uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities with the assistance of Nuclear Supplier Group. The Americans reluctance to transfer nuclear technology and material for the construction of nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia will provide a golden opportunity to the Russians, South Koreans, French, Chinese, etc international nuclear firms to sell their nuclear reactors to the Kingdom. Although it’s difficult to predict about the finalization of nuclear deal between United States and Saudi Arabia, yet a few analysts seems optimistic. It was reported ‘the Kingdom is on the verge of striking a deal with the US for the purchase of nuclear reactors.’ In February, the US Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry and Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih met in London to discuss a nuclear agreement. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also discussed the transfer of nuclear technology for the peaceful use with the Americans during his current United States visit.
The discouraging reality is that despite Trump administration’s willingness to sell nuclear reactors to the Kingdom, a few members of American nuclear establishment are sceptical about the Saudis nuclear project. They are upset because Riyadh has demanded the right to control the enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of reactor spent fuel into plutonium. Both enriched uranium and plutonium are used as a fissile material for atomic devices. In addition, the Saudi ruling elite’s insistence that Riyadh would pursue nuclear weapons if Iran develops nuclear weapons also alarms the Americans. Therefore, Americans are insisting for the strict compliance with the 123 sections of the United States’ 1954 Foreign Assistance Act, known as the gold standard in nuclear deals.
Importantly, for thwarting US-Saudi Arab nuclear deal, the American scholars have been publicizing concocted stories about the latter assistance to Pakistan. Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski claimed that ‘Riyadh had funded the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. In return Islamabad has pledged to provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.’ In reality, neither Riyadh expressed desire to purchase nuclear weapons nor Islamabad is willing to provide nuclear weapons to any friendly state, including Saudi Arab. Interestingly, one fails to realise that if Pakistan had promised Saudi Arab to provide nuclear weapons in return of economic assistance, why Riyadh is soliciting Washington for nuclear enrichment and reprocessing technologies and material. The critics need to realise that Saudis would be establishing uranium enrichment facility because the country is having lucrative uranium deposits. To conclude, the critics of the Kingdom’s nuclear energy programme seem convinced that Riyadh could violate its non-proliferation commitments. Conversely, the defenders or supporter opine that the entire nuclear infrastructure of the country will remain perpetually under the IAEA safeguards. Thus, Saudi Arabia develops nuclear energy programme with the international cooperation inconformity with its non-proliferation obligations.
— The writer is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.