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Nuclear Power Plant Stokes Arab Gulf Rivalries
The UAE's Barakah nuclear generating plant. (Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation)

Nuclear Power Plant Stokes Arab Gulf Rivalries

UAE, Saudi Arabia already compete for business, have disagreements over Yemen

As the United Arab Emirates successfully tested Unit 1 of its Barakah nuclear power plant – the first in the Arab world – this past weekend, regional rivalries in the Gulf were undergoing tests of their own.

While the UAE and fellow Sunni states are on the front lines with a nuclear-capable, Shi’ite Iran, the emirates’ progress has caught the notice of Saudi Arabia in particular.

“The threat of a regional arms race is real,” Dr. Cornelius Adebahr, a nonresident fellow at the European branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Media Line.

“For regional politics, the question will be about nuclear enrichment and non-proliferation,” added Adebahr, who lived in Tehran for two years.

Nuclear ambitions in such a conflicted part of the world leave many concerned as Iran tests the limits of the international Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a 2015 deal aimed at barring the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons. The United States withdrew from the accord in 2018, saying it was not sufficiently strict.

Among Iran’s Gulf neighbors, the UAE is farthest along in its civilian program, considered a mark of prestige, with Saudi Arabia in a distant second place. The Saudis have spoken publicly about violating non-proliferation agreements and obtaining a nuclear weapon if Iran gets one.

There is little similarity between the UAE and Saudi programs.

“The UAE is the regional leader in the Gulf and the Middle East in pursuing a civil nuclear-energy program, and doing so in such a way that addresses enrichment concerns,” Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston, told The Media Line.

“It’s thus very different not only from Iran’s long-established nuclear program, but also from the one that Saudi Arabia is looking to develop, as neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has addressed international safeguarding regimes in the way the UAE has,” Ulrichsen said.

The UAE has agreed to develop nuclear power without enriching uranium domestically, unlike Iran. The Saudis have not given such assurances. This has led to concerns that using nuclear power for energy could pave the way for the development of nuclear weapons.

“Having an enrichment program is one of two possible routes to a nuclear weapon,” Adebahr said.

Having an enrichment program is one of two possible routes to a nuclear weapon

“If you can enrich uranium to the low levels needed for a power plant, which is 5%, you can also enrich it to the higher levels required for a bomb, around 90%. That is why enrichment in Iran, or any other country for that matter, is so controversial,” he said.

“The other route is through plutonium, a regular by-product of generating energy in a heavy-water reactor,” he continued, adding, however, that with this material, the “switch from civilian to military use is not an easy one.”

With the UAE emerging as the clear winner in the Gulf race to develop civilian nuclear power, regional tensions, especially with Saudi Arabia, have been exacerbated.

The two largest commercial hubs in the Gulf, the Saudis and Emiratis compete on a business level. They also have diverging military interests in Yemen, a conflict they entered together on the side of a government overpowered by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London’s Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, contends that the UAE’s nuclear dominance shows that much of the world, particularly the West, has more faith in Abu Dhabi than in Riyadh.

“The fact that the international community, including the United States and Israel, deemed it safe to allow an Arab country to go nuclear shows that the UAE’s standing in the region is certainly better than the standing of Saudi Arabia,” he told The Media Line.

The fact that the international community, including the United States and Israel, deemed it safe to allow an Arab country to go nuclear shows that the UAE’s standing in the region is certainly better than the standing of Saudi Arabia

“Discussions over Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear technology, even if just for civilian use, were quite polarized, with Western governments particularly voicing concern, especially since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud took over the kingdom’s helm,” Krieg added. “His unreliability and impulsiveness make Saudi Arabia a far more problematic user of nuclear power than the UAE.”

While the West is hesitant about Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions, China apparently is not. The Wall Street Journal reported on August 4 that Beijing had helped the Saudis construct a uranium-ore facility. Uranium is the main fuel for nuclear reactors although it must first be refined and enriched.

Saudi Arabia, which is among the top three countries for crude-oil reserves, and the UAE, which is seventh, need to use other types of energy in addition to oil, Krieg said.

“Nuclear power provides an important aspect in the Gulf states’ development for the post-hydrocarbon era,” he explained. “As fossil fuels in the country are being depleted, the Gulf states need to add nuclear power to the mix in order to free up more hydrocarbons for export while lowering their carbon footprint.”

At full power, the Barakah power plant is expected to generate a quarter of the UAE’s electricity.

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