The US Position on Saudi Arabia’s Civilian Nuclear Program

In June 2023, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud affirmed the kingdom’s intent to enrich uranium, part of its desire to develop a civilian nuclear program. Despite China and Russia having shown interest in partnering with Saudi Arabia on such an endeavor, Riyadh once again expressed a preference for a nuclear agreement with Washington. Importantly, it also requested a US commitment to Saudi security needs and reduced arms sales restrictions in exchange for potentially normalizing relations with Israel, a strategic goal for the Biden administration.

Riyadh’s ambitions to secure American nuclear cooperation date to the George W. Bush administration. However, negotiations have stalled over the US demand that Saudi Arabia forgo domestic uranium enrichment because of the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Saudi Arabia has resisted this protocol, asserting sovereignty over its uranium resources and apprehension toward Iran’s increased enrichment in recent years. It is clear that both perspectives stem from the same source: security concerns. By aligning objectives, the United States and Saudi Arabia can achieve a suitable nuclear compromise. While this might potentially assist US efforts toward Saudi-Israeli normalization it is important to focus instead on what can almost certainly be guaranteed. By helping develop a Saudi nuclear program, the US can ensure nonproliferation while also deterring Iran and resisting rising Chinese and Russian regional influence.

Why Nuclear Energy?

Saudi Arabia contends that its interest in nuclear energy is based in its desire to diversify its economy and energy sources beyond oil. This is, after all, a key aspect of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan, which intends to increase the share of natural gas and renewable energy in electricity production to 50 percent. To achieve this goal, Riyadh has developed its solar and wind power, and is pursuing nuclear energy due to its appeal as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. The sustainable, low-cost promises of nuclear energy explain Riyadh’s long-standing desire for a civilian nuclear program.

Riyadh is pursuing nuclear energy due to its appeal as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

Beneath the economic surface of this potential development lie security concerns. The kingdom faces a considerable nuclear threat in its neighbor, Iran. In 2015, prior to the establishment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, experts concluded that the Islamic Republic could theoretically produce one nuclear warhead’s worth of uranium within two months. Riyadh and Tehran’s relations deteriorated from that year onward, as evidenced in the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the severing of ties between the two nations, Iran’s barring its citizens from participating in the Hajj pilgrimage, and attacks on major Saudi oil facilities that the kingdom said were orchestrated by Iran. Although the two countries restored ties last March, the memory of heightened aggression will not fade so easily.

Merely four months later, Saudi Arabia requested American arms sales, security commitments, and a civilian nuclear partnership. According to a 2022 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Tehran has reached near weapons-grade uranium enrichment levels, undoubtedly sparking Riyadh’s intention to enrich its own uranium. Domestic enrichment provides the potential for countries to divert nuclear materials for weapons manufacturing, which could enable Saudi Arabia to develop such munitions under the guise of a civilian program. Regardless of its intent in this regard, the threat of nuclear proliferation resounds. And Saudi Arabia may be aiming to deter Iran by arming itself accordingly, or by simply giving the appearance that it is capable of doing so.

US National Security Interests

Analysts and government officials have described current US foreign policy as a pivot to Asia due to the reprioritization of the Asia-Pacific to help deter China. With the perception of the Middle East’s decreased importance on the rise, regional allies have questioned the future of current security agreements and have begun shifting their focus beyond the United States. For instance, in 2022 Riyadh discussed pricing its oil sales to China in yuan rather than dollars, and has coordinated oil production with Russia. In the same year, when the Biden administration requested that Saudi Arabia reconsider OPEC oil cuts, the kingdom defended its decision and went ahead regardless. In March, Riyadh became a dialogue partner at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political, economic, and security group founded by China and Russia. In the same month, Saudi state-owned oil company Aramco announced that it started building a refinery and petrochemicals complex in China. Notably, Riyadh’s top partner in the oil trade is Beijing. Meanwhile, Moscow recently strengthened its military cooperation with Riyadh, trained Saudi astronauts for a joint space mission, and pushed for tighter relations. These and other developments run contrary to US interests, and a US-Saudi deal on nuclear development could help bring the kingdom back into a tight-knit bilateral relationship.

Instead of preferring American nuclear cooperation, Saudi Arabia could very easily partner with its Chinese or Russian bidders. Prior collaboration has demonstrated Beijing’s appeal. In 2019, the Saudi Geological Survey and the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to identify potential Saudi uranium deposits, which determined a production capacity of 90,000 tons. While publicly unconfirmed, in 2020 the Wall Street Journal reported on a Chinese-built uranium yellowcake extraction facility in the kingdom. Meanwhile, Russia’s regional experience presents another compelling choice. The Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation has built two nuclear reactors in the Iranian port city of Bushehr, and is currently building a third with an anticipated launch between 2024 and 2026. By the next decade, Rosatom aims to supply floating nuclear power plants for Middle Eastern markets. In 2020 a Rosatom subsidiary also lent $25 billion to three Egyptian companies to construct the country’s first nuclear power plant. Rosatom is also building Turkey’s first nuclear facility, and Ankara has been discussing the construction of two more. China and Russia’s rich experiences and relaxed enrichment protocols provide promising offers to the kingdom and would represent significant steps toward strengthened relations at a time when US-Saudi ties are enduring twists and turns.

Saudi Arabia has expressed preference for an American partnership, despite stricter conditions than China or Russia.

Yet Saudi Arabia has expressed preference for an American partnership, despite Washington enforcing stricter conditions than China or Russia. This stance signals Riyadh’s commitment to its traditional US alliance and its desire to strengthen the relationship, a position that can be leveraged to ensure non-proliferation. A US-Saudi nuclear partnership could be struck that permits American companies to construct any nuclear facilities and that allows the American government to monitor them with its signature strictness.

The United States is well aware of this opportunity, as US-Saudi nuclear negotiations date to the George W. Bush administration, when the kingdom signed a non-binding MoU confirming its intent to forgo domestic uranium enrichment in favor of already established foreign markets. Per this agreement, the US would assist in developing a safe, sustainable program for medical, industrial, and power industries in alignment with IAEA protocols. Additionally, Saudi Arabia joined the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and diplomatically endorsed the Proliferation Security Initiative. Riyadh’s peaceful nuclear steps were perceived as a counterexample to Iran’s uranium enrichment. Since then, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear infrastructure has been cleared by the IAEA, which in mid-2018 announced Riyadh’s readiness to court bids on nuclear power plants and its adherence to the IAEA-designed legal framework. A Section 123 agreement would be the next step, but has presented a persistent challenge.

The Challenges of a Section 123 Agreement

Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, “Cooperation With Other Nations,” requires  presidential confirmation that a nuclear partnership does not present needless security risks, as well as adherence to several other criteria. Stipulations include commitments to non-proliferation and IAEA safeguards, the protection of nuclear materials, and Washington’s consent for retransferring, reprocessing, and enriching provided material. Essentially, the agreement aims to verify a peaceful nuclear program by hindering weapons proliferation.

While the Obama and Trump administrations both attempted to negotiate a Section 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom rejected customary American policy. It has not agreed to the IAEA’s voluntary Additional Protocol, which grants inspectors the right to investigate facilities on short notice, collect necessary samples and information, and conduct remote monitoring. One hundred and forty countries have agreed to the Additional Protocol, including the UAE. In recent years, Washington has not signed a Section 123 agreement with nations that have not complied.

Moreover, Washington insists that Riyadh should forgo uranium enrichment, as in the “gold standard” provision used in a prior US deal with the UAE. However, Saudi Arabia has defended its sovereignty over domestic uranium enrichment, reasoning that if Tehran can enrich uranium, then Riyadh should not be held to a different standard. However, the conditions of a Section 123 agreement are the same for all regional partners and cannot be altered without consequences. If the US grants different conditions to Saudi Arabia, it will be obligated to discuss amending the UAE’s terms. And if both Gulf countries are enriching uranium, the Middle East will pose greater proliferation risks.

By insisting on its stringent conditions in nuclear agreements, the US aims to ensure non-proliferation. And despite the years of stalled negotiations, Saudi Arabia still prefers the United States over its present bidders in Russia and China. The US can utilize this to fashion a compromise, conditionally meeting the remaining Saudi Arabian requests in exchange for adherence to non-proliferation protocols.

Recommendations for Negotiations

Saudi Arabia would be incentivized to abstain from enrichment if it were offered concrete defense advantages. The kingdom has requested a guaranteed US commitment to its security, which Washington can provide by designating the kingdom a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). Such status does not grant mutual defense pacts, but demonstrates the country’s serious regard for key allies. Currently, there are 18 MNNAs, including the Middle Eastern or Muslim-majority nations of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia, Qatar, and, until 2022, Afghanistan. Notably, the Obama Administration considered designating Saudi Arabia as an MNNA. Such designees enjoy heightened US defense training and cooperation, leased military equipment, and expedited commercial satellites, among other benefits. These advantages meet Saudi Arabia’s expressed security concerns and would enhance Washington and Riyadh’s mutual goal of deterring Iran. Designating Saudi Arabia as an MNNA would demonstrate the United States’ security commitment to the kingdom while solidifying relations with a key ally.

An additional strategy could be the gradual facilitation of defense trade. From 2014 to 2019, the United States sold 25 percent of its arms to Saudi Arabia, and 73 percent of the kingdom’s total arms imports were American-made. Although US-Saudi weapons sales were temporarily halted over human rights concerns in 2021 and the war in Yemen, major arms trade has since continued to deter Iran and has worked to maintain military ties. The US could promote its national security interests by strategically addressing Saudi Arabia’s push for reduced arms restrictions by tying sales to non-proliferation commitments, much as the Leahy Law ties them to human rights. To start, the US should establish progress markers throughout the development of the kingdom’s nuclear program to monitor its compliance with nuclear security standards. The kingdom could then incrementally receive arms sales upon passing each evaluation stage. The US should also determine the minimum, maximum, and several median levels of advanced weapons and technology that it is willing to trade. These deals would align with the program’s tracking points and be contingent on sufficient compliance with nonproliferation protocol. Tying arms sales to nuclear safety would provide the necessary motivation for Riyadh to forgo uranium enrichment, as weapons sales would fulfill its expressed security concerns.

Until a deal is struck, Saudi Arabia holds most of the cards. If the United States cannot negotiate suitable conditions, Riyadh will turn to its prior collaborator China, or to the regionally experienced Russia, paving a path for these countries’ greater regional influence within the nuclear realm and beyond. Yet Saudi Arabia has revealed one card: its enduring preference for Washington. Despite years of nuclear disagreements and fluctuating relations, Saudi Arabia has favored the United States over other bidders. This demonstrates Riyadh’s preference for and commitment to American security ties, enabling Washington to devise a mutually agreeable solution for Saudi nuclear policy. Although Saudi Arabia has the advantage, the United States will determine the next step. Either negotiations will prove too challenging, or the United States and Saudi Arabia will fuse their shared priorities into a peaceful nuclear program.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.