Nuclear Power in the Middle East between Energy Needs and Military Temptation

Though the Iranian nuclear issue is the focus of world attention, Tehran is not alone in developing its program in the region. From the Gulf to Egypt, several countries would like to bank on a program of clean nuclear energy. But these projects come up against their dependence on foreign know-how, the high cost of the technology and regional instability.

The Barakah nuclear power plant, UAE

The race for the mastery of nuclear energy in the Middle East began in 2011 after the connection between the Iranian nuclear plant at Bouchehr and the local electric company was announced. In 2016, Saudi Arabia made public a plan to build 16 nuclear power reactors by 2040, while according to the latest data provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the United Arab Emirates (UAE) already possesses 4 reactors. At the beginning of 2021, the reactor located in the first Baraka station at Abu Dhabi reached 100% of its production capacity with an output of 1,400 megawatts, making it the largest single source of electric energy in the Emirates. Other countries in the region like Egypt, Turkey and Jordan are also busy developing the nuclear sector to supply their energy needs.

For most of the oil-producing countries in the region, energy security is a vital issue. The Gulf monarchies are starting to explore the means available in the post-oil era of limiting their dependence on fossil fuels – this is especially true of Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and of attenuating water scarcity via desalination. In the case of Jordan and Egypt, it is mostly population growth which is responsible for the rising energy needs. All these issues, however, must not be allowed to conceal the security concerns behind these nuclear projects in the Middle East confronted with Iran’s military nuclear program. For some countries, the nuclear option is a weapon of defence in view of the putative geo-strategic changes in the region.

A balance of terror with Iran

Participating in the March 2022 session of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Saudi Arabia announced the creation of an investment trust which would enable it to participate in economic projects related to nuclear energy, local in scope or international.

This initiative is part of the logic of competition with Iran which has been around for quite some time. King Abdallah (1924–2015) had already declared that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, every country in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia. In an interview granted US TV network CBS, in March 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman made a similar statement, asserting that “there is no doubt but what if Iran develops an atomic bomb, we will do the same as soon as possible.” In fact, his country has already taken a step in that direction since the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015.

An August 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal1, quoting unnamed Western leaders, claimed that with the help of China the Kingdom has already built in the Al-Ula region in the North-West of the country, a plant to produce “yellow cake”2. This information was finally confirmed in January 2022 by Minister of Energy Abdelaziz Bin Salman, whose declaration stressed the point that his country has as its disposal “large quantities of uranium ore” and certainly intended to put them to good use.

Moreover, satellite photos show that the Kingdom will soon have completed the construction of its first nuclear reactor. Until now, Riyadh has refused to allow the IAEA to inspect its installations, since it has signed a cooperation agreement with the agency which makes no mention of any inspections so long as its production remains limited. In 1988 the country did, moreover, add its signature to the non-proliferation treaty.

For the moment, Saudi Arabia’s ambition is to play a pioneering role in the development of nuclear energy for peacetime purposes, especially in view of its vast uranium deposits. It also intends to set up an industrial chain for the mining and enrichment of uranium ore, energy production and the desalination of seawater. According to the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030”, the exploitation of the country’s uranium will involve cooperation with China but also with Hungary and Kazakhstan.

Close ties with Beijing that Washington does not like at all

The Saudi nuclear program shows the importance of Sino-Saudi cooperation and confirms the distance that Riyadh has taken in this area with the USA, its traditional military ally. This decision can be explained by the ongoing dissension between the two countries, especially as regards the policies to be adopted in the Middle East and the Iranian issue.

This energy cooperation with Beijing is relatively belated but has become the cornerstone of a global strategic partnership between the two countries, especially since China discovered Uranium and Thorium in the Saudi subsoil. Besides which, the Chinese national nuclear company has signed several high-level cooperation and coordination agreements with Saudi government institutions, including the King Abdelaziz City for Science and Technology and the Kind Abdula City for Atomic and Renewable Energy.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, the president of the Chinese Group for Nuclear Engineering signed a protocol with the director of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy for the construction of a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. The following year the Kingdom mandated the Chinese national nuclear company to prospect nine potential uranium deposits.

In 2018, a Saudi expedition travelled to the site of a nuclear energy project in Fujian (South-West China) where exchanges took place around the technologies and engineering works on the Hualong-1 reactor which relies on technology of the 4th generation. China is one of the few countries to master that technology but has decided to share it only with countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative which Washington is determined to undermine wherever it can.

Population pressures and environmental issues

In neighbouring UAE, the main incentive for developing nuclear energy is the capacity to produce clean energy. In 2009, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) awarded the Korea Electric Power Company a 20-billion-dollar contract to build the Baraka nuclear power plant. Comprising four reactors, it represents one of the world’s largest recent investments in nuclear energy and constituted the first peacetime nuclear project in the Middle East. That same year, the UAE signed a bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation with the USA. Regionally the federation has emerged as a model in nuclear matters through its commencement to international safety and security norms as regards non-proliferation. In this respect, its cooperation with the USA is a “golden guarantee”.

As both industry and population are continually growing in the UAE, the demand for electricity increases annually by between 7 and 10%. But at the present time, nearly all the country’s energy needs are met by fossil fuels. Hence Abu Dhabi has made public its first national energy strategy and its intention to convert to clean energy sources for both local consumption and for export purposes, amounting to 50% of an energy mix, of which 6% should be nuclear by 2050. The rest (44%) will be made up of various renewable energy sources – solar energy, wind turbines, etc. – especially considering that the UAE plans to reduce its CO2 emissions by 70%.

Its agreement with the USA has not, however, prevented this Gulf country from also turning to China. In 2018, the federation was Xi Jinping’s first stop on his first foreign tour since his re-election as President of the People’s Republic. On that occasion the two parties announced a global strategic partnership. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the nuclear agencies of the two countries in view of implementing a model of sustainable development, including industrial and financial cooperation. According to this partnership, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation and the UAE companies plan to cooperate in the field of energy production.

However, several factors will prevent the development of any such cooperation. At once Dubai served as a base of operations for a smuggling network run by the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Oadeer Khan. The federal structure of the UAE makes it difficult to control dual-use goods because each emirate has different laws which can make coordination difficult. Moreover, when the war in Yemen broke out in 2014, the Houthis attacked several Emirati sites, which prompted the latter to refrain from opening new nuclear construction sites for fear they might also undergo Houthi attacks. Besides which, South Korea has just signed a contract to build four nuclear units in the UAE, while other countries like the USA, Russia and France are vying for their share of nuclear contracts, which leaves less and less room for China.

An exorbitant cost

Demographic pressure also plays a major role in Egypt where the population is over 100 million, whence the need for nuclear reactors for energy production. More so as its petroleum deposits are few and the huge gas deposits recently discovered will not suffice to cover the rising consumption. More reactors are planned to produce electricity and desalination of seawater. Feasibility studies are being carried out by South Korean, Chinese, and Russian companies.

Egypt issued a call for tenders in 1983 to build a reactor at El-Dabaa, to the South-West of Alexandria, but the program was adjourned after the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986. In 2015, President Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi managed to sign a contract with Rosatom, the federal atomic energy agency, for a power plant comprising four reactors, each with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts. The Russian firm will ensure its operation for 60 years and provide fuel for it as well. As for the spent nuclear fuel, it is to be sent back to Russia to be processed. The agreement also includes the definition of safety norms and the provision of expertise as well as the construction of factories for the manufacture of spare parts for the nuclear power plant. The cost of the project is estimated at 32 billion dollars, most of which is financed by Russia via a 25-billion-dollar loan, repayable over a period of 25 years, starting in 2029.

Indeed, although the construction costs of nuclear power plants are going down and the construction cycles have been considerably shortened, from an average of 14 to 20 years to an average of from 6 to 7 years, nuclear and renewable energy projects remain very capital intensive. So that except for a few rich countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia or the UAE, countries like Egypt and Jordan might have difficulty raising the funds required for developing civil nuclear energy.

For Cairo, cost is not the only obstacle. The safety, security and proliferation risks are very real. To limit them will require heavy investments in technology, regulatory, educational, and training institutions. In view of the current political situation and the war in Ukraine, the El-Dabaa nuclear project remains uncertain. Egypt is a regional leader in nuclear matters, it has aspired to develop a nuclear program since 1954. If there were concerns at that time about Cairo’s military intentions – especially in the context of its conflict with Israel – this dimension has disappeared today, especially since the country ratified in 1981 the Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Since then, it has explicitly urged all the countries of the region – and especially Israel – to do the same. In 1990, Egypt was at the origin of a campaign to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East which was, of course, mostly aimed at Israel and its armament program.

Israel and its regional ambitions

Israel has always shown an interest in nuclear energy. Indeed, for the past forty years it has been regarded as one objective of its energy planning, even if it has not yet brought it into play structurally, despite the governmental decision in the seventies to prepare and maintain the production of electricity with nuclear reactors. At present it is planning to build a nuclear power plant composed of two units, each with a capacity of between 1,200 and 1,500 megawatts.

Israel sees itself as an “energy islet”, since it is not connected with any of its neighbours’ grids and must import all its energy sources, enabling it to produce some 13,000 megawatts of electricity, a figure which has doubled since 2020.

For want of a national nuclear energy program, Israel must either continue to rely on its energy imports or find other ways of procuring nuclear energy such as regional cooperation.

Israel’s energy situation prompts it to seek a long-term regional nuclear agreement which will require it gradually to display greater transparency regarding its nuclear activities in exchange for cooperation with its Arab neighbours on energy projects, especially with the Gulf countries. This is already the case today for other infrastructure such as its Internet cable connection with Saudi Arabia. Tel Aviv hopes that the creation of links and networks with neighbouring Arab countries will be one of the stages in its so-called peace plan for the region and will open the door for more technological cooperation in the energy sphere.

At the same time, the country has announced that it has no intention of adhering to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons so long as no peace treaties have been signed with the countries that still refuse to recognise its existence or threaten to destroy it. It still has one 70-megawatt heavy water reactor in a research centre at Dimona, built with the help of France and not subject to inspection by the IAEA. However, according to foreign intelligence agencies, international experts, and the revelations of a former technician in 1986, Israel does indeed produce nuclear weapons. And it remains unlikely that it will curtail these activities, even after signing the Abraham Accords, since it shares with certain Arab capitals a belligerent attitude on the subject on account of Iran’s nuclear activities.

A high-risk region

The worries about nuclear security in the Middle East have limited the expansion of nuclear energy. For example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are worried about possible terrorist attacks. In the first place, this raises the question of nuclear safety, i.e., quick measures of prevention and detection to deal with malicious acts like theft, sabotage, unauthorised possession, and illegal transfers. But there is also the security issue, i.e., ensuring that the nuclear installations are in working order, preventing accidents, or limiting their consequences. The countries of the Middle East have worries about the availability of nuclear material to terrorist organisations which undercut their desire to develop peacetime nuclear energy. The UAE, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan import most of the fissionable material for their current programs and this raises the issue of dependence on other counties.

Furthermore, the region is subject to frequent earthquakes (especially Iran and Turkey), high temperatures, frequent terrorist attacks and ferocious geopolitical quarrels. When Iran was hit in 2013 by an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 on the Richter scale, the catastrophe caused fissures in the concrete at the Bouchehr nuclear power station.

Any nuclear leakage in the Gulf region would constitute a severe challenge for those countries, dependent as they are on the desalination of sea water. And lastly, what with its relatively late start in the development of nuclear energy, the Middle East suffers from a scarcity of qualified experts and a tardy development of the related technologies.

1« Saudi Arabia, With China’s Help, Expands Its Nuclear Program», 4 August 2020.

2A concentrate of uranium representing an intermediate stage in the manufacture of nuclear combustible.