On 4 August of this year, The Wall Street Journal published its discovery that Saudi Arabia had built a nuclear energy facility with the help of China, signaling a new era in Eurasian geopolitics. The facility, situated in the sparsely populated northwest part of Saudi Arabia, is being used to extract “yellowcake” from uranium ore, a preliminary yet consequential step in developing the capabilities to power a civil nuclear energy plant—and, potentially, to build nuclear weapons. Subsequent to the groundbreaking reportage, Saudi and Chinese
officials declined to comment on inquiries from U.S. and allied officials, keeping the details of the facility’s purposes secret. Only the Saudi Energy Ministry offered a comment, stating that the ministry “categorically denies” that a uranium ore facility was built in the identified location. Ministry officials went on to state that, if any sort of yellowcake extraction is pursued, it is simply part of the Wahhabi Kingdom’s “Saudi Vision 2030,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) flagship initiative for economic diversification.
Last month, however, on 17 September, The Guardian reported that, after seeing confidential documents, Saudi Arabia’s uranium extraction efforts are, indeed, underway, and are moving at “breakneck speed.” The documents in question were prepared by the Saudi government and sent to Chinese geologists for review, leaving no doubt about the Saudi-China bilateral cooperation. The Riyadh-Beijing partnership became official in August of 2017, with the announcement that the China National Nuclear Corp (CCNC) had signed a memorandum of understanding with The Saudi Technology Development and Investment Co. (Taqnia), the two countries’ leading nuclear project developers, respectively.
While most transatlantic attention has generally been preoccupied with Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s malign activities in the Middle East, a new set of threats and players is emerging in plain sight. At the broader level of the Eurasian supercontinent, China’s increasing engagement in the Middle East is part of its comprehensive, systematic strategy for achieving hegemony. At the regional level, there is the immediate issue of Saudi Arabia.
A nuclear Saudi Arabia would be a game-changer for the security environment and balance of power in the Middle East, further destabilizing an already fraught geospace. Currently, Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East, and adding Saudi Arabia to the roster of WMD states will accelerate the expansion of the region’s nuclear arm space.
The MBS era has been defined by his unpredictable and erratic leadership, including foreign policy adventurism and domestic intrigue. Doubly concerning is the Saudis’ choice of China as the facilitator in this development project. Saudi Arabia is currently a nuclear “hedger,” a country which can weaponize nuclear energy capabilities with alacrity. Some experts, like Iran economic specialist Saeed Ghasseminejad at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have theorized that Riyadh looked to Beijing very deliberately, reasoning that, if the Saudis decide “to move towards military nuclear capabilities, China and Chinese companies will be more accommodating or at least less hostile towards such a move.”
Furthermore, the Saudi-China nuclear relationship involves a calculus by other non-democratic, destabilizing actors in the Mideast. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been open about his country’s aggressive nuclear campaign. Turkey has been pursuing nuclear energy since 2006, and, after years of failed development plans, began construction on its first nuclear facility in 2015. The facility, Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, is being built with the help of Rosatom, a leading Russian nuclear energy corporation, and will have four large civilian nuclear power reactors. Construction is expected to be completed in 2023, which also happens to be the centennial of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. When complaining of Turkey’s lack of nuclear weapons, President Erdoğan said, “This, I cannot accept.” Given Turkey’s volatility, and Erdoğan’s increasing foreign adventurism in Artsakh, Syria, and Cyprus, the impending reality of a Turkey with nuclear weapons is an even larger threat with the power dynamics now emerging with Saudi Arabia.
Egypt makes for greater volatility in a potentially nuclear Middle East. The most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt is one of Turkey’s strongest regional competitors, and will likely follow suit if Turkey weaponizes their emerging nuclear capabilities. Egypt has begun construction on several nuclear reactors (which are also Russian-built), and, as reported by Foreign Policy, has long operated “a large Argentine-designed research reactor capable of producing more than a bomb’s worth of plutonium each year and has tinkered with reprocessing.”
The prospect of a nuclear Saudi Arabia may easily produce a nuclear arms race that will degrade the security environment in the Middle East, creating the kind of regional instability that will advance China’s goals for geopolitical hegemony across Eurasia.