Saudi Arabia wants to go nuclear. Like many developing nations, the kingdom has seen its electricity demand soar in recent years—more than 8 percent annually—and is actively searching for alternatives to fossil fuels. Enter nuclear power: last month Saudi Arabia announced a joint initiative with Japan’s Toshiba and American firms the Shaw Group and Exelon to build and operate at least two nuclear power plants in the country. This comes on the heels of the establishment in April of the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy, an organization to manage future energy sources.
Of course, Saudi Arabia’s hardly alone in the Middle East in its desire for nuclear power. But unlike its poorer neighbors, it’s got the money to see its plans to fruition. However, the country’s legendary secrecy about its internal workings has some analysts worried about its nuclear ambitions. Unlike, say, the United Arab Emirates—which is quite transparent about its own $40 billion nuclear-power program and has even signed a bilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation with the U.S.—Saudi Arabia is unlikely to follow suit and show all its cards.
While Saudi Arabia says its interest in nuclear power is for future energy security, looming over its endeavor is the threat of a nuclear Iran. Though Western analysts are unsure about the extent of Iran’s alleged weapons program, the chance that Tehran could go nuclear in the next few years surely has Saudi Arabia worried. “There are both political and economic drivers for nuclear power in Saudi Arabia,” says Mark Hibbs, senior associate of the nuclear-policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The country’s appetite for electricity is growing fast. It has to be concerned that if it doesn’t diversify its economic base away from fossil-fuel exports, it will be taking risks.” But the country also wants to “challenge Iran’s nuclear leadership in the region. That doesn’t have to mean Saudi Arabia will try to develop nuclear weapons. But a nuclear-armed Iran would be a direct threat to Saudi Arabia,” says Hibbs, who calls the Saudi nuclear-energy program a “long-term hedge against that outcome.”
Western officials also fear that Saudi Arabia could join a nuclear defense pact with Pakistan (both Sunni majority countries) in order to protect against intimidation from Shiite-majority Iran. Adding to that concern is the fact that European and American officials believe Saudi Arabia may already be contributing money to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Peaceful or no, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program will surely have a very big impact in the Middle East and abroad.