Saudi Arabia to Go Nuclear

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by Michael Lumish// Saudi Arabia and Russia are getting rather chummy these days. Toward the middle of last month, Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, visited with Vladimir Putin during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.  On Thursday, June 18, Saudi Arabia signed six agreements with Russia, including a nuclear deal which could see Russia building up to sixteen nuclear power plants on the Saudi Peninsula.

According to the National Interest:

The main agreement was a legal framework for civilian nuclear cooperation, with Saudi TV reporting that the country may pay Russia to operate as many as sixteen civilian nuclear power reactors. If accurate, such a deal would be hugely beneficial for both sides: Russia’s Rosatom would receive a lucrative contract, topping up government coffers, while the Saudis would be able to export significant amounts of oil and natural gas that are currently used to meet high domestic energy demand.

The various agreements contain a number of provisions including cooperation on the Yemen issue.  The nuclear arrangements are generally being interpreted in economic terms and in terms of the Russian relationship with OPEC.  As Nuclear Power Industry News notes the deal could mean up to $80 billion dollars flowing into Russian coffers due via nuclear construction projects.

As Reuters reports, such a deal would also allow Saudi Arabia to sell oil on the international market that might otherwise have been diverted for domestic consumption.  However, it should also be noted that Saudi Arabia has already signed nuclear cooperation deals with the United States, France, South Korea, China and Argentina.

Meanwhile, Nuclear Power Daily tells us:

According to Russia’s state-run atomic energy agency Rosatom, the deal for the first time in the history of Russian-Saudi relations creates a legal framework for bilateral cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. It opens a number of prospects, including cooperation in construction and operation of reactors, nuclear fuel cycle services as well as education and training.

This story has largely gone under the radar in the western press, particularly the American press, and reading most of the reports, so far, this all sounds relatively benign.  The National Interest even claims that the deal is “good news” while blandly noting that “a friendlier Saudi-Russian relationship raises some concerns for the United States.”

My suspicion – and it is only a suspicion – is that the Russian-Saudi deal is, at least in part, a reaction to the nuclear deal that United States President Barack Obama hopes to shortly conclude with Iran. Analysts are predicting that Obama’s Iran nuke deal will fuel a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East and, in all likelihood, this is what we are looking at.  It could be that the primary motivation of the Saudis is simple economics.  By building nuclear facilities for domestic energy consumption they can sell more oil on the international market.  What is also quite likely, however, is that Saudi Arabia, like Iran, has cast its eye on the potential for a nuclear weapon. It seems highly unlikely that Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia, not to mention Sunni-controlled Egypt, is going to look kindly upon a Shia bomb in the neighborhood.

The Russian-Saudi deal is a preliminary step that will allow Saudi Arabia to begin its own nuclear weapons program.  They may not do so, however.  It could be that Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Sunni-Arab world, are perfectly content to see their Shia rivals become the dominant Muslim force in the region, but I would not bet on it.

Ultimately, this development may have dire consequences not just for the Middle East, but the entire planet.  Given the instability brought about by the misnamed “Arab Spring” a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East is potentially disastrous.  As such weaponry begins to proliferate within the region there is absolutely no telling whose hands they might end up in. Imagine the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with nuclear weaponry.