An exclusive report by the Wall Street Journal this week, “Saudi Arabia Eyes Chinese Bid for Nuclear Plant”, raised the issue of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, Ahmed Mustafa reports. It also revived talk of Saudi Arabia edging further away from the US and closer to China and other rising global powers.
Though Saudi Arabia’s quest for developing a peaceful nuclear programme started years ago, building a nuclear power station recently took on urgency. It is the ambition of a historically oil rich country seeking to diversify its economy and move away from fossil fuels. There is also an element of competitiveness and concern about lagging behind other countries in the region.
Iran, a main Saudi adversary in the Gulf, has had its own nuclear programme for years and made great strides in developing nuclear capabilities. The UAE has nuclear power stations that were developed by a South Korean firm which are now online and functioning. Egypt is starting to build its own nuclear power station on the north coast using Russian technology and contractors. And the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, wants not only to build nuclear power stations but also to develop Saudi nuclear capabilities. An informed Saudi source told Al-Ahram Weekly that one of the reasons behind the much-discussed tensions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is the Emirati nuclear power station. Saudi Arabia was unhappy with the selection of a location so close to the border, especially without consultation.
Initially, Saudi Arabia wanted an American company to build its nuclear power plant, but since Americans attach conditions to their offers, Riyadh sought out other bidders. The French company EDF was an option, but talks faltered as the Saudis were not convinced of the company’s offer. If not the Americans, Riyadh wanted the Korean company that built the Emirati plant (Kepco) which uses American technology, but a row between Kepco and the American provider of some of its nuclear technology (Westinghouse) emerged as the American company abides by the US provision of non-proliferation.
As the US tried to broker a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Riyadh put forward some conditions, among them American help in developing a Saudi nuclear programme. But Washington made nuclear aid contingent on the Saudis agreeing not to enrich their own uranium or mine their own uranium deposits in the kingdom.
Contrary to those American conditions, the Chinese are already helping Saudi Arabia extract uranium from its raw ore. WSJ previously reported that China “helped the Saudis with a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, an initial step towards enriching uranium. The Saudi government said it was working with the Chinese to explore for uranium.”
The Chinese state, which owns China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC), is bidding for the Saudi nuclear power project. Both WSJ and the Financial Times reported that if talks with the Americans failed, the Saudis will award the nuclear project to the Chinese. That implies that Riyadh might be negotiating with China as a way to goad the Biden administration to compromise on its non-proliferation requirements.
But Andrew Hammond of Oxford University told Al-Ahram Weekly that it is “partly an economic issue. This is more business lost to US companies and the US economy. When the US government is being difficult there are now many alternatives and the advantage of China is there are no strings attached. It’s not necessarily the case that US technology is better anyway. None of the other regional countries have chosen American, there’s no special privilege in going American. The UAE chose Korea because they’re good.”
From an economic perspective, the CNNC bid is more than 20 per cent cheaper than other offers the Saudis got, and with Israel and some officials and lawmakers in Washington expressing concern that Saudi Arabia’s goal of developing a nuclear energy programme could pave the way for Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons, this tilts the decision even more in China’s favour.
If the Chinese won the Saudi nuclear contract, that would cement the Saudis’ shift towards the East. It takes years if not decades to build a nuclear power plant, run and maintain it. China is the main oil importer of Saudi oil, and recently brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such a nuclear deal will give Beijing more presence in the Gulf and the Middle East at the expense of waning traditional influence of America in the region.
American efforts to have Saudi Arabia recognise Israel as a state and normalise relations with it will be negatively impacted, too, and it might be a long way yet before a Saudi-Israeli accord can be reached.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly