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Saudi Arabia Has Been Going on a Nuclear Shopping Spree

France and Saudi Arabia just inked an arms deal worth several billion dollars, the latest in a string of Saudi purchases that involve nuclear technology.

by Ryan Faith
Jun 28 2015, 1:35pm

Photo by Christophe Ena/EPA

In the latest round of Middle East weapons purchases, France and Saudi Arabia just inked an arms deal worth several billion dollars. This deal, however, stands apart from the other, more garden-variety multi-billion dollar deals for advanced jets and ships in that the package includes feasibility studies for two nuclear reactors, as well as professional training on both nuclear safety and waste treatment, according to a report from Defense News.

For those of you keeping score at home, this Saudi-French nuclear deal goes up on the scoreboard with a recent Saudi-Russian deal. Then there's last month's announcement that South Korea and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement for a feasibility study for building two reactors worth a total of $2 billion. And this deal was announced on the heels of an agreement between Argentina and Saudi Arabia on nuclear R&D. And that's all on top of the spike in chatter about Saudi Arabia making good on its arrangement to buy nukes off the shelf from Pakistan.

Related: To Save Their Relationship, Obama Invites Arab Allies to His Millennium Falcon

All together, this amounts to a whole bunch of dots that you don't need a PhD in nuclear physics to connect: As the US-Iran nuclear talks wind to their conclusion, Saudi Arabia is battening down the hatches and loading for bear. That, in turn, makes a pretty sharp statement about the Saudi lack of faith in the ability of the US nuclear security umbrella to protect them from an Iranian nuclear attack.

But a whole bunch of dots does not a complete picture make.

For one thing, there's no way on Earth that Saudi Arabia turned around and negotiated a whole swath of nuclear deals in a matter of one or two months. If you've ever seen the paperwork involved in buying something like a house, you know full well that nobody is clearing the paperwork for an international nuclear reactor deal in just a couple months. So clearly, these recent nuke deals are unlikely to be related to the current Iran nuclear negotiations.

And lo and behold, if you follow the chronology back a bit, you see that in 2013, Japan and Saudi Arabia reached a nuclear agreement. Just a year earlier, there was also an agreement with China for closer technological and economic cooperation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Looking back a bit further, you can find then-Rep. Ed Markey (now Democratic senator for Massachusetts) pitching a proper rant about why George W. Bush would help the Saudis with nukes when they're sitting on top of a ton of oil and underneath nearly limitless sunshine.

Why indeed?

Watch the VICE News documentary Rearming Iraq: The New Arms Race

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Well, there are two good, legitimate, above-board reasons for the Saudis to want a civil, non-military nuclear program. Saudi Arabia is planning to build 16 nuclear plants in total, worth more than $80 billion, with the first one going online in 2022, and the remainder finished by 2030. The Saudi population is growing at a very brisk 8 percent annually, and being all desert and whatnot, there's not a lot of fresh water to be found. Thus, the plan is to use nuclear power to provide for large-scale desalinization. Renewables are part of the mix — in fact, current plans project for more than twice as much solar as nuclear power generating capacity. Given the 8 percent population growth rate and growing per capita energy demand, it appears that hedging bets on different energy sources is probably the right move.

The second reason is closely related to the first. According to Mining.com, Saudi Aramaco CEO Khalid al-Falih estimates that "rising domestic energy consumption could result in the loss of 3 million barrels per day of crude oil exports by the end of the decade." Three million barrels per day (bpd) is a pretty sizable amount of oil compared to their total exports, which are just about 10 million bpd. So, as it turns out, part of the reason the Saudis want nuclear power is precisely because they're sitting on top of a sea of oil. They want to export more of it, rather than burning it for domestic electricity.

Aside from the legitimate case for civilian nuclear power production, there's the fact that the reactors that the Saudis are looking to purchase and build are all "light water reactors" operating on the same principles as the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr in Iran. Without delving into the technical specifics, light water reactors are a pretty lousy choice if you're trying to scavenge up enough material to make a bomb. Plus the Saudis seem to be cooperating pretty solidly with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on nuclear safeguards.

So all things considered, it's probably a safe bet that the Saudi program is legit and more-or-less justifiable, right? Not so fast — again.

VICE News spoke to Jeffrey Lewis, an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University, and one of the leading nuclear arms wonks, about the Saudi situation. "They are aware that they have every right to civil deals, and there are people in Saudi Arabia who have an interest in nuclear energy," Lewis told VICE News. "But they're also not stupid. And they're aware of the value of the technological base that this implies."

'There are people in Saudi Arabia who have an interest in nuclear energy. But they're also not stupid.'

Some of the contracts and nuclear deals have a lot of ancillary training programs attached. Programs about waste handling, fuel cycle management, operating plants, and so on and so forth. So it's entirely possible that the Saudis are purchasing a nuclear industry and knowledge base in plain view, with plans to marry that up with nuclear weapons know-how purchased from Pakistan.

The Saudis may not have the industrial or knowledge base to run a nuclear industry whether military or civilian today; however, they've got friends — the Pakistanis — who can teach them a thing or two about military nuclear programs. This may not be an especially hard ask if the allegations that the Saudis paid for 60 percent of the Pakistani military nuke program are actually true.

So what should the world do about this? That is a tough, classic question and gets right to the heart of a conundrum that runs from gun control debates to nuclear negotiations with Tehran: dual-use technologies. Nuclear power, much like firearms, is a technology that can be used for good or ill. In other words, nuclear energy doesn't flatten cities, countries with nukes do.

Dual-use issues are incredibly difficult because they go almost directly to that place that analysts find hardest to measure, quantify, and describe: intent. How one reacts to a potential weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program is basically decided by psychological assessment and a gut call about what people aim to do.

In the arena of WMD proliferation, there's often a suspicion that bad actors will use legitimate civilian programs to mask the illicit development of military technology. In fact, the dual-use concerns were a big factor in the pre-Iraq War debate about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. There really isn't a great way to prove much one way or the other because most WMD proliferation technologies land in the big, fat middle zone of stuff that could be used for either civilian or military purposes; very few technologies are unambiguously military.

If the Powers That Be are convinced you're sincere about nuclear disarmament, it's not impossible to make your case. South Africa scrapped its entire nuclear weapons complex in the 1990s. On the other hand, it seemed like no amount of documentation could convince the West that the Iraqis had well and truly scuttled their program. Even to this day there's remaining uncertainty about what really happened.

Related: Iran Is Still at the Nuclear Negotiating Table — and Still Not Cooperating

Getting back to the Saudis, the question isn't really whether or not they are assembling a nuclear weapons program, because there's not a really great way of conclusively proving beyond any reasonable doubt whether a program is entirely civil or secretly military. Even worse, there's zero chance of proving today what the program will be doing tomorrow or 10 years from now. This entire civil nuclear program is, in essence, a very large breakout capability.

The Saudis are, however, getting that breakout capability just as negotiations with Iran are grinding to their ultimate conclusion, so the diplomatic component can't be ignored. "It usefully conveys a message, in addition to being something that they can do in its own right," Lewis told VICE News.

But there's at least room for one educated guess about whether the Saudis are pursuing nuclear weapons. The Saudis absolutely don't trust Iranian assertions that their nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes. So the more that the Saudis come to believe that the West buys into Iranian claims, the more likely it is that the Saudis themselves will pursue their own nuclear weapons capability. Ironically, the best chance for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East may come from axiomatically rejecting Iran's claims that they don't want to spread nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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