According to a congressional report, a group that includes former senior U.S. government officials is lobbying to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. As an expert focusing on the Middle East and the spread of nuclear weapons, I believe these efforts raise important legal, economic and strategic concerns.
It is understandable that the Trump administration might want to support the U.S. nuclear industry, which is shrinking at home. However, the congressional report raised concerns that the group seeking to make the sale may have have sought to carry it out without going through the process required under U.S. law. Doing so could give Saudi Arabia U.S. nuclear technology without appropriate guarantees that it would not be used for nuclear weapons in the future.
A competitive global market
Exporting nuclear technology is lucrative, and many U.S. policymakers have long believed that it promotes U.S. foreign policy interests. However, the international market is shrinking, and competition between suppliers is stiff.
Private U.S. nuclear companies have trouble competing against state-supported international suppliers in Russia and China. These companies offer complete construction and operation packages with attractive financing options. Russia, for example, is willing to accept spent fuel from the reactor it supplies, relieving host countries of the need to manage nuclear waste. And China can offer lower construction costs.
Saudi Arabia declared in 2011 that it planned to spend over US$80 billion to construct 16 reactors, and U.S. companies want to provide them. Many U.S. officials see the decadeslong relationships involved in a nuclear sale as an opportunity to influence Riyadh’s nuclear future and preserve U.S. influence in the Saudi kingdom.
Why does Saudi Arabia want nuclear power?
With the world’s second-largest known petroleum reserves, abundant untapped supplies of natural gas and high potential for solar energy, why is Saudi Arabia shopping for nuclear power? Some of its motives are benign, but others are worrisome.
First, nuclear energy would allow the Saudis to increase their fossil fuel exports. About one-third of the kingdom’s daily oil production is consumed domestically at subsidized prices; substituting nuclear energy domestically would free up this petroleum for export at market prices.
Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. Ninety percent of its drinking water is desalinated, a process that burns approximately 15 percent of the 9.8 million barrels of oil it produces daily. Nuclear power could meet some of this demand.
Saudi leaders have also expressed clear interest in establishing parity with Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 2018 interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
As a member in good standing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Saudi Arabia has pledged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and is entitled to engage in peaceful nuclear trade. Such commerce could include acquiring technology to enrich uranium or separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. These systems can be used both to produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors and to make key materials for nuclear weapons.
US nuclear trade regulations
Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, before American companies can compete to export nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, Washington and Riyadh must conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, and the U.S. government must submit it to Congress. Unless Congress adopts a joint resolution within 90 days disapproving the agreement, it is approved. The United States currently has 23 nuclear cooperation agreements in force, including Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt (approved in 1981), Turkey (2008) and the United Arab Emirates (2009).
The Atomic Energy Act requires countries seeking to purchase U.S. nuclear technology to make legally binding commitments that they will not use those materials and equipment for nuclear weapons, and to place them under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It also mandates that the United States must approve any uranium enrichment or plutonium separation activities involving U.S. technologies and materials, in order to prevent countries from diverting them to weapons use.
American nuclear suppliers claim that these strict conditions and time-consuming legal requirements put them at a competitive disadvantage. But those conditions exist to prevent countries from misusing U.S. technology for nuclear weapons. I find it alarming that according to the House report, White House officials may have attempted to bypass or sidestep these conditions – potentially enriching themselves in the process.
According to the congressional report, within days of President Trump’s inauguration, senior U.S. officials were promoting an initiative to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, without either concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement and submitting it to Congress or involving key government agencies, such as the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One key advocate for this so-called “Marshall Plan” for nuclear reactors in the Middle East was then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who reportedly served as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3, the firm that devised this plan, while he was advising Trump’s presidential campaign.
The promoters of the plan also reportedly proposed to sidestep U.S. sanctions against Russia by partnering with Russian companies – which impose less stringent restrictions on nuclear exports – to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Flynn resigned soon afterward and now is cooperating with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But IP3 access to the White House persists: According to press reports, President Trump met with representatives of U.S. industry, a meeting organized by IP3 to discuss nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia as recently as mid-February 2019.
Rules for a Saudi nuclear deal
Saudi leaders have scaled back their planned purchases and now only expect to build two reactors. If the Trump administration continues to pursue nuclear exports to Riyadh, I believe it should negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Kingdom as required by U.S. law, and also take extra steps to reduce nuclear proliferation risks.
This should include requiring the Saudis to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, a safeguards agreement that give the agency additional tools to verify that all nuclear materials in the kingdom are being used peacefully. The agreement should also require Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers, and export the reactor spent fuel for storage abroad. These conditions would diminish justification for uranium enrichment or opportunities for plutonium reprocessing for weapons.
The United States has played a leadership role in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile regions. There is much more at stake here than profit, and legal tools exist to ensure that nuclear exports do not add fuel to the Middle East fire.
Politicking in Saudi Arabia has been anything but normal this week. In what may be the most dramatic internal political event in the kingdom in modern history, dozens of influential princes, ministers and military officials were detained by Saudi authorities as part of an “anti-corruption” operation.
This action has not only served to radically disrupt decades-old mores of Saudi politics, but has further consolidated the crown’s unilateral hold on power.
Since emerging in early 2015, the administration of Saudi King Salman bin Saud has distinguished itself from its predecessors with a penchant for bold and sudden moves that some analysts have viewed as worryingly unpredictable.
Where previous governments were characterised by caution and a general preference towards the status quo, Salman’s rule has been characterised by decisions decidedly out of the traditionally conservative character of the kingdom.
Much of this dynamism has been attributed to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the son of the reigning monarch. Known colloquially as MbS, the 32-year-old royal quickly distinguished himself from previous crown princes by being appointed to numerous high level positions in defence, economic and social matters. He’s been at the forefront of many of the radical policy shifts of the current administration.
Read more: Why is Saudi Arabia suddenly so paranoid?
In the space of just two years, Saudi Arabia has jumped into an unprecedented, aggressive military campaign into Yemen, displayed far more bellicosity in its rivalry with Iran and launched an extremely ambitious economic reform initiative. It’s also committed itself to allowing women to drive and sought to heavily rein in the country’s more conservative religious actors.
Mohammad bin Salman has played a key role in this, and this week’s unprecedented events seem no exception.
Stamping out corruption?
Officially, this week’s arrests have been marketed as part of a wider drive to clean up corruption and bring the Saudi domestic economy more in line with the Vision 2030 program.
Championed by Mohammad bin Salman, this initiative encompasses nation-wide labour, industrial and financial reforms. It’s designed to liberalise Saudi markets, encourage foreign investment and ween the state and society off their reliance on a an oil-based economy.
While the Saudis certainly aren’t paragons of transparency, they aren’t its worst proponents, either. Within the wider Middle East and North Africa, the Saudis actually score fairly well on the International Corruption Perceptions index, far outranking neighbours like Iran, Egypt and Sudan.
Within the Arabian Peninsula, the kingdom is more lacklustre in cracking down on corruption, but not majorly so, with only Qatar and the UAE significantly outpacing it. Globally, Saudi Arabia is on par with a reasonably functional East European state like Hungary or Slovakia.
Nevertheless, the kingdom has been wracked by numerous corruption scandals in the past few years. One particularly poignant case of outrage resulted from floods in Jeddah in 2009 and 2011. More than 100 Saudis were killed in the floods due to inadequately built drainage systems.
This, and similar incidents, left many Saudis demanding national reforms and accountability, and has certainly provided the palace a credible justification for their activities this week.
Power consolidation and ending consensus rule
But while there may be some credence to official justifications for these arrests, they also fit with a wider pattern of unprecedented power consolidation around the king and his regent.
This trend most obviously began in June of this year, when then-crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef was deposed from his position as heir-apparent. Nayef was subsequently confined to his home and has not been seen publicly since.
Mohammad bin Salman assumed the now-vacated position and became next in line for the throne. This was a break from tradition, as the crown has not passed from father to son since the end of end of the first king’s reign in 1953.
In the months leading up to August, Saudi security forces greatly ratcheted up their suppression of Shi’a political protesters in the town of al-Awamiyah, demolishing whole sections of the town and turning many residents into internal refugees.
In September 2017, police arrested numerous outspoken clerics who had openly dissented on official state policy. While such arrests are by no means new in the Saudi context, they have been described by Madawi al-Rasheed, an eminent watcher and expert on Saudi politics, as “hypersensitive” and “paranoid”.
This week’s arrests have continued to eliminate sources of dissent against the regime’s objectives. Numerous heavy-hitters in the Saudi political, business and royalty hierarchy have been targeted.
In the same timeframe, a helicopter carrying the influential prince Mansoor bin Muqrin also mysteriously crashed in the country’s southern wilderness, killing all on board. While this latter incident may have simply been a malfunction, its timing has raised eyebrows.
While possibly confronting some sources of corruption inside the kingdom, these arrests have undeniably neutered many potential foils to the designs of Mohammad bin Salman and his penchant for unilateral decision-making.
Figures such as the business-savvy Alwaleed bin Talal, self-described as as a “visionary investor” and “global philanthropist”, could certainly be useful allies in reforming the economy. But it appears Mohammad sees such experienced individuals more in terms of their potential rivalry.
The arrests also signal that the crown is far less open to the consensus of the political elites and much more predisposed to unilaterally determining the national path. While technically absolute rulers, Saudi monarchs have traditionally determined much of their policies through an opaque inner council.
This body of 100 to 200 individuals is made of senior business, religious and royal elites. While not formal, it provides expertise on many issues and has arguably been much more influential on royal policy than the official consultative council.
By effectively neutralising figures who were undoubtedly members of the inner council and often considered untouchable, the palace is effectively signalling to those remaining that they must fall in line and that their privilege and prestige will no longer shield them against the will of Salman and his audacious son.
Among these extraordinary departures from the norms of the past, it remains extremely difficult to predict how far the Saudi palace is willing to go to see its will to fruition. One major question pervades, however, and that is whether such radical actions ultimately result in equally extreme consequences for the house of Salman.