By Shehab Al Makahleh
The Middle East has entered the nuclear age. The existing strategic equilibrium in the Middle East is shifting as the region seeks a new balance, an equipoise which has been in perpetual flux over the past 30 years. The Arab-Israeli and the Iranian-Arab conventional weapons race began in earnest in the mid-1980s. Some countries plunged into nuclear others into biological, chemical and ballistic missile systems. Since then, the new strategic dimensions have become part and parcel of imbalance ever since. Many atomic states are on a hair trigger in the Middle East, which is the most capricious and volatile region which has been witnessing gigantic political transformations in the past two decades.
When American president Donald Trump said that he would revise the nuclear deal with Iran if he wins in the elections, the Middle East has started to change. Many countries started to think of means to get nuclear plants for energy. The question is which countries are making nuclear arms or which countries have the ability to produce them in the Middle East? Two countries for sure: Iran and Israel.
Since 2000s, Middle Eastern countries have voiced their interest to have their own peaceful atomic nuclear programs, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Middle East states have announced their atomic energy plans in response to Iran’s stagy progress towards nuclear supremacy. The reason behind the deal with Iran was to thwart any bids by Tehran to have a bomb which would lead to a nuclear race in the Middle East.
Arab countries’ fears are not far-fetched. They have started changing their military doctrine since1991. Arabs, mainly in the Gulf region, started looking for tactical and strategic non-conventional weapons to make a balance of power with Iran by securing clear inclination for technological advances and institutional torpor and apathy to proceed at their own impetus. The Middle East states, after the gradual pullout of the American troops from the region, have been undergoing a state of transition at all levels — strategic, political and economic, militarily structural to reach the point of “balance of terror” with their enemy: Iran.
Debate over Iran’s nuclear program has heated up since the beginning of 2000s. Even after Tehran reached a nuclear deal with the international community, the USA and other countries still accuse Iran of seeking to build nuclear arms. Tehran for its part denies these accusations and says Iranian reactors are for peaceful purposes to produce energy.
Though Israel and other Arab countries tried hard to foil the attempts to sign the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East countries are heading towards atomic arms race, fueled by fear of Iranian expansionism and resurgence, mainly from Saudis and Emiratis.
Both Israel and the Arab countries have at present one enemy: Iran. Israeli and Arab fears from Iran are much bigger than having a nuclear bomb but rather an existential threat that can turn Tehran into an independent atomic capability.
Proxies ignite nuclear race
Sunnis in the Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, view Iran as a religious risk, fueling proxies and threatening the stability of the Arab world through Tehran’s endeavours to revive Shiite states in the heartland of the Middle East region. Since Iran is regarded as a political rival since 1979 Revolution, which has been threatening the Arab monarchies, Arabs started to think of having a deterrent weapon that can curb Iran from continuously interfering in their internal affairs and intimidating their people.
In 2016, Al-Riyadh daily commended Saudi Arabia to start preparing an atomic program for peaceful purposes” to have the first Saudi nuclear reactor operational by 2030. Though there are rumors that Riyadh has purchased “off-the-shelf” atomic bomb from Pakistan, this has not been confirmed by either of the two countries. Thus, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East has also dragged other countries.
Middle Eastern states may have genuine reasons and authentic motives to invest in nuclear power. For example, Jordan has almost few quantities of oil and gas; this has prompted the government to ask the Russians to help set up a nuclear power plant to produce energy. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have colossal crude reserves. Turkey also imports huge amounts of oil and gas to produce energy. Thus, it is in dire need of nuclear plants for this purpose.
Saudi nuclear plants
Within less than a month, Saudi Arabia will unveil the names of companies winning the tender for the construction of two nuclear power reactors, scheduled to start at the end of this year 2018, in a move Riyadh aims to enter the nuclear club for the first time in its history.
Under the framework of the National Atomic Energy Project, Saudi Arabia aims to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20-25 years, which are to be under the supervision of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and are aimed at enabling the country to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear power.
Washington’s approval for the Saudi move remains one of the main dilemmas facing Riyadh, and it is expected that it will top the agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the United States early March which will take him to other states as well. Donald Trump’s administration faces a critical position in this regard as negotiations between Saudis and Americans on nuclear energy had reached a deadlock.
The idea to construct nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia is not new; however, the pace accelerated more during the past two years. New motives for Riyadh have crystallised to proceed with the construction of nuclear reactors, particularly in the aftermath of the agreement signed with Iran during Obama’s administration, which hampered negotiations between Riyadh and Washington. Some analysts in the White House believe that the deal with Iran “made it difficult to force Saudi Arabia to abide by law 123.”
Trump’s two options
Trump knows that American companies are competing with Korean, Chinese and Russian. If he seeks to support the American companies in this deal, he has to give the green light when Prince Mohammad bin Salman visits Washington in March 2018. With this he has to abandon certain controls that restrict nuclear proliferation. Thus, if Saudis reach agreement without any restrictions, it would be a remarkable shift in US nuclear policy since 50 years. Analysts view this case as a new test for Trump’s negotiating skill as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner who visited Riyadh several times.
It seems that Kushner has prepared well in anticipation of the upcoming visit of Mohammed bin Salman to Washington to conclude the deal in favor of “Westinghouse” company.
Russian, American and Korean rivalry
November 2017, Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, expressed Rosatom’s interest to be involved in building nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.
The company presented its offer during the meeting of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul Aziz with Novak, and discussed ways to strengthen and develop bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy.
The Russian company has applied to participate in the construction of two nuclear reactors in the Kingdom. In mid-December 2017, Moscow and Riyadh signed a roadmap for cooperation in the field of “peaceful nuclear energy” to promote cooperation in the field of atomic power.
The signing of the road map has coincided with Riyadh’s announcement that it intends to build 16 hydroelectric reactors over a period of 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, as well as other small desalination plants.
On the other hand, a Saudi-Korean meeting revealed several months ago the completion of more than 20% of the engineering designs of the SMART reactor and the completion of the success of the first and second stages of the human development program for Saudi engineers participating in the project.
Nuclear power in Jordan
Jordan imports over 95 per cent of its power requirements, at a cost of about 20 per cent of its GDP. In 2007, Jordan set out a program for atomic energy to provide 30 per cent of electricity by 2030. In 2015, Jordan signed a US$10 billion agreement with Russia to construct the first nuclear power plant in the kingdom with two reactors to produce 1,000 megawatt power. The construct is expected to finish by 2022. According to the agreement, Jordan will buy fuel from Rosatom for both reactors for 10 years.
UAE first nuclear plant to open summer 2018
The UAE is due launch the Arab world’s first nuclear power station in summer 2018; the other three plants will be commissioned by 2020. Once the four nuclear power plants are fully operational, they will produce 25 per cent of the country’s electricity demand. By 2050, The Barakah nuclear plant will deliver up 50 percent of the country’s power requirements. The UAE has committed not to enrich uranium itself and not to reprocess spent fuel.
Egyptian nuclear program
Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Cairo on December 11, 2017 with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi where a delegation from both countries signed an agreement to launch Egypt’s atomic energy plant at El -Dabaa. Rosatom has announced that construction work on the El-Dabaa plant, which is located west of Alexandria, had started end of December. The Russian company will service the plant’s four reactors for 60 years.
To sum up, the major countries surrounding Israel and Iran are setting out plans to have their nuclear power plants. If Sunni Arabs become nuclear-armed or even just nuclear-capable, the strategic advantage Israel has enjoyed for more than 40 years will disappear and the ballistic missile technology that Iran prides itself with will vanish. Though the Israelis know that the Arab target is Tehran not Tel Aviv, will the Israelis approve the nuclear trend of the Middle East? Failure to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement or a settlement to the current Arab-Iranian conflict would lead to further escalation and tension, a prelude to armed conflict or external intervention.