US President Donald Trump heralded nothing short of “the dawn of a new Middle East” as the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements normalising ties with Israel during a ceremony at the White House this week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that sentiment, saying “this day is a pivot of history”.
The diplomatic detente is significant — the UAE and Bahrain will join Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to officially recognise the Jewish state. This will strengthen economic and security ties that have existed tacitly for years and establish diplomatic missions in the respective capitals.
But despite Trump’s grandiose statements, these agreements are little more than a footnote in the wider chaos of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs.
The broader Arab-Israeli conflict has been dormant for decades, as the main players have been preoccupied by the threats of internal dissent and civil strife, rather than one another.
Beyond this, the UAE and Bahrain were never central to Arab hostilities with Israel. Historically, they acted as cheerleaders and financiers for the front-line states during the Cold War, such as Syria and Egypt.
In geopolitical terms, Bahrain is far less notable — it’s effectively a vassal of Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the immediate changes brought by these diplomatic moves, the bigger question is how Saudi Arabia will respond in the coming months.
It is rare in foreign relations to see “beta testing” of bold ideas, but the UAE and Bahrain have provided just such a test case for Riyadh in its own fraught push to normalise relations with the Jewish state.
This led to an informal arrangement between the Saudis and Israelis, along with the United States and a number of smaller Gulf states, aimed at confronting the Iranian challenge together.
An outright solidification of an alliance between the Saudis and Israelis would allow for greater cooperation and coordination in regional security, diplomacy and trade — and build a more unified and effective front against the threat posed by Iran’s growing influence in the region.
But previous attempts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to warm relations have proved challenging, to say the least.
In 2018, bin Salman made the unprecedented move of declaring Israel’s right to exist, extending a clear olive branch meant to open the door to further opportunities to strengthen ties between the two countries.
However, the prince may have jumped the gun with the statement, which was met with ambivalence by the Saudi public and other Arab states.
Many felt the move too sudden and incongruous with the kindgom’s longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Saudis have long demanded the creation of a state for the Palestinians before any sort of formal sovereign recognition could be offered to Israel.
Ultimately, this led to an embarrassing intervention by the prince’s father, King Salman, who publicly walked back his son’s statements, in part due to fears of eroding the monarchy’s domestic legitimacy.
Following his chastisement, the prince went silent on the issue for over a year. He also took a less prominent position in the public eye, a significant departure from his normal flamboyant style.
This year, things have changed. With King Salman ailing, the prince consolidating his position within the country further and the ever-present threat of Iran across the gulf, there are new opportunities for Saudi Arabia to potentially re-engage with Israel.
New challenges have also presented themselves. The ravages of COVID-19 and a vulnerable oil market have left the kingdom in a far more precarious position than just two years ago. In such an environment, the risk of losing legitimacy from such a deal could prove far more catastrophic to the authoritarian regime.
Bin Salman may be up to the task, though. The prince has demonstrated a growing aptitude to navigate complex political situations.
Over the past year, for instance, he has curtailed his characteristic brashness, avoiding the blunders seen early on in his reign that damaged Saudi prestige on the international stage and drew ire from his father.
Since his 2018 Israeli misfire, the prince has displayed a more reserved and circumspect demeanour in his public activities and foreign engagements — sending a message he intends to serve out a long and productive term.
Having learned from past mistakes, a more prudent bin Salman is likely to approach a rapprochement with Israel with greater caution than before.
If people in the UAE and Bahrain prove amenable or indifferent to the warming relations between their countries and Israel — and all signs thus far suggest they do — it may encourage the prince to try his plan again.
While many on the Saudi street still oppose Israel in theory, the issue lacks the salience it once did. There is an exhausting array of crises in the region — from Yemen to Syria, Libya to COVID-19 — that have become far more immediate priorities.
Thanks in part to to a concerted propaganda effort by bin Salman, the Saudi public is also increasingly in tune with the ruling elite when it comes to the desire to counter Iran as a national security concern.
As a small country on the Mediterranean sharing no borders with the Saudis, Israel simply doesn’t pose the same kind of threat in the popular imagination as the looming expansionist giant just across the gulf.
With these political dominoes in line, the coming months may prove a far more fortuitous time for bin Salman to pursue a Saudi detente with Israel.
Such a development would not only be historically significant, but would pave the way for an Arab-Israeli alliance — the likes of which has never been seen before.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.