NUCLEAR WARCould a U.S.-Saudi Nuclear Deal Spark Middle East Arms Race?

By Cathrin Schaer

Published 30 May 2024

One part of a predicted, closer US-Saudi relationship is particularly controversial. Experts fear Saudi Arabia may use a civilian nuclear energy program, supported by the US, to develop their own atomic bombs.

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 ReutersThe 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.

U.S. Senator: Saudi Arabia ‘Cannot Be Trusted’
As reports about a US-Saudi deal started coming out in early May, US Senator Edward Markey wrote to President Joe Biden.