Could a US-Saudi nuclear deal spark Middle East arms race?

Bombastic phrases like a “mega deal” or a “grand bargain” are being used because the agreement would bring the US and the Saudis closer

By News Report
May 30, 2024
US President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (right) seen fistbumping in this undated photo.— Reuters/file

WASHINGTON: Last week, several media reports suggested that Saudi Arabia was on the verge of a “mega deal” with the United States.


Bombastic phrases like a “mega deal” or a “grand bargain” are being used because the agreement would bring the US and the Saudis closer in significant ways, including in a mutual defense pact and through cooperation on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and a civilian nuclear program.

Such a deal was originally supposed to be closely tied to the normalization of Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel. However, with the Saudis insistent that any normalization include Israeli recognition of a path towards Palestinian statehood and the Israelis equally insistent that they don’t want that, normalization has been put on hold.

Instead, according to various reports published by the likes of Reuters, The New York Times, the UK’s Financial Times and The Guardian since the start of May, the “mega deal” between Saudi Arabia and the US is likely still going ahead — just without Israel.

The exact details are not known, but any deal is likely to involve cooperation on Saudi Arabia’s long-held ambitions for civilian nuclear energy, a way for the country to diversify away from oil. Many analysts say this is among the most likely-to-happen aspects of a “mega deal” — and also among the most controversial.

The controversy stems from the fact that the Saudis are determined to enrich uranium on their own soil, Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, told DW. The technology used for uranium enrichment produces fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but can also result in uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.

“Saudi Arabia is adamant on [this],” Kelsey said. “Riyadh will walk away from a nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington before it forgoes enrichment.”

Last September, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman created international headlines when he said if Iran, his country’s regional rival, manages to get a nuclear bomb, then Saudi Arabia will need one, too.

As reports about a US-Saudi deal started coming out in early May, US Senator Edward Markey wrote to President Joe Biden. “I fear that Saudi Arabia — a nation with a terrible human rights record — cannot be trusted to use its civil nuclear energy program solely for peaceful purposes and will instead enrich uranium and seek to develop nuclear weapons,” argued Markey, co-chair of his government’s nuclear weapons and arms control working group.

Besides fears that the Saudis might end up with nuclear bombs, there are also concerns that simply permitting them to enrich uranium would set off a regional race.

“Allowing Saudi Arabia to acquire such capabilities could set a problematic precedent at the international level. It could possibly encourage other countries in the region, such as Egypt or Turkey, to pursue similar nuclear capabilities, leading to a proliferation cascade in an already volatile Middle East,” Manuel Herrera, a researcher focused on nuclear non-proliferation at Istituto Affari Internazionali, an Italian thinktank, wrote late last year. Herrera and other experts hope that if a Saudi civilian nuclear program happens, the US government will enforce strict guardrails. These might include deferring uranium enrichment inside Saudi Arabia until later or setting up an enrichment facility that only American citizens can access. It could also include allowing a Saudi-based conversion plant to turn refined uranium powder into gas, but not enriching uranium.

The Saudis could also be asked to adhere to conditions, including signing on to specific non-proliferation criteria under Section 123 of the US 1954 Atomic Energy Act and agreeing to additional inspections by the Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency. “As far as we know, the US is trying to put forward a deal very similar to the one that they did with the United Arab Emirates in 2009, in which they applied Section 123,” Herrera explained to DW in an interview earlier this week. However, the Saudis have previously said no to that. “The assumption has been that the various elements [of a US-Saudi agreement] would be mutually reinforcing,” Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, wrote in an April briefing. “For example, normalization would make nuclear cooperation with [Saudi Arabia] more palatable to Israel, and a US security guarantee and nuclear cooperation would make normalization more palatable to [Saudi Arabia].”

But now that Israel is not involved, analysts say the “mega deal” may be another way to pressure the Israeli government. Israel’s allies, including the US, have been pushing Israeli leaders towards a different, more careful approach in Gaza. The Israeli government has previously said it doesn’t want the Saudis to get any kind of uranium enrichment capacities.