Nuclear Saudi Arabia Risks Inflaming Middle East Tensions

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country plans to develop nuclear power. Reuters

Tensions in the Middle East are about to go nuclear.

Saudi Arabia will begin extracting uranium and build its own nuclear power program, Saudi officials announced Monday, a development that could lead to nuclear weapons and heightened regional discord.

The country's top nuclear official, Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, said his oil-rich country aims to become "self-sufficient" through the development of a nuclear power program, part of the nation's larger social and economic transformation that aims to diversify the economy and move away from the finite resource of oil.

He told attendees at an energy conference in Abu Dhabi that the goal was "to introduce nuclear power for peaceful purposes."

But nuclear reactors can also be used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, and Saudi Arabia's entry into the nuclear club comes as Saudi Arabia's foe, Iran, remains barred from developing nuclear weapons under its pact with the United States.

That has some analysts worried that a nuclear Saudi Arabia will tip the balance of power in the region.

"The pursuit of a nuclear energy program is a strategic choice following the nuclear deal between U.S. and Iran, as an expression of the continued regional rivalry between the two states," Harrison Akins, a researcher at the Howard Baker Center, told Newsweek.

The U.S. has not yet announced its official position on Saudi Arabia's plans for nuclear power development, but Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States. If Washington backs Riyadh, it could heighten tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially given President Donald Trump's hostility towards the Iran nuclear pact, Akins said.

"A position of support by the United States towards the Saudi nuclear program could put further strain on the current nuclear deal with Iran," he added.

Amanda Kadlec, a national security expert with the Rand Corporation, added that the fear of a nuclear Saudi Arabia is real, but also too early to worry about.

"Fears about Saudi Arabia developing a weapons program at this stage would be understandable given the heightened state of instability in the region, but to draw this immediate conclusion about its intentions and capacity to do so would be extremely premature," Kadlec said.

Currently, the United Arab Emirates is the only country in the Gulf area developing a nuclear power program, and its first nuclear reactor is set to go online next year.

Saudi Arabia will award a construction contract for its first two reactors by the end of 2018, Yamani noted Monday. Saudi Arabia has reportedly contacted potential bidders from South Korea, China, France, Russia, Japan, and the United States.

Israel is the only country in the region to possess nuclear weapons, which many analysts believe has helped Israel maintain its own balance of power in the region.