A US-Saudi Deal on Civilian Nuclear Cooperation: Context and Questions

How does the halt in the normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia influence the Saudi civilian nuclear program and the US-Saudi cooperation in nuclear issues?

This text was originally prepared for the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium’s Newsletter No. 57; you may find a shortened version at https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/eunpd_e-newsletter_57.pdf.

In the course of most of 2023, the international media was full of guesses and explanations of an eventual Saudi-Israeli Abraham Accord. The Abraham Accords – between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, respectively – were “transactional deals” aimed at the normalization of relations between Israel and these Arab states supported by the Donald Trump administration, i. e., in return for the normalization of their relations with Israel, the Arab countries received certain bonuses from the United States. For the UAE, it was the sale of F-35 fighter jets (still not delivered) for Morocco, the acknowledgment of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, while Sudan was taken off the US list of states supporting terrorism, and a loan to clear its arrears to the World Bank and access $1 billion in annual funding.

In spite of the relatively fast conclusion of the four Abraham Accords between September and December 2020, and the following steps of opening embassies, etc., no further deal has been concluded, and it remained to the next – Biden – administration to mediate the “big prize,” the Saudi-Israeli Abraham Accord. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seemed to clearly understand the potential in the transactional nature of such an agreement and put forward three conditions: a credible US defense commitment, the sale of the most modern military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and help to establish a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil. (Outside this package, several economy-related issues are on the table, e.g., the Saudis have not prolonged the so-called petro-dollar agreement.) There was also reference to a list of Palestinian requests to be fulfilled in exchange for the Palestinians accepting a Saudi-Israeli deal (the change of parts of Area C in the occupied West Bank, where currently Israel has full control, to Area B, where it would be the Palestinian Authority’s competence; the US reopening the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem closed by Trump; the opening of a Saudi consulate in Jerusalem; Saudi resumption of funding to the PA; Israel agreeing to resume Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations). 

With the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, and the proceeding Israeli war on Gaza, however, the strategic context changed: out of the initially planned package deal of three components – US-Saudi agreement (with the Saudi demands), Saudi-Israeli normalization and a credible pathway towards a Palestinian state – the possibility of Israel moving forward towards Palestinian statehood became impossible for a long time to come, while for the Saudis Palestinian statehood has jumped to the first place on the agenda. Yet, Saudi Arabia has still maintained that it was ready to negotiate an Abraham Accord with Israel, should it accept the terms. Although US officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of the three nations coming to terms as planned, it became increasingly apparent, and even expressed by American officials, that the US was ready to prepare and eventually sign a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Yet, though it was a prime target to get the Saudis to sign an Abraham Accord with Israel—the topic of many high-level meetings and discussions between American and Saudi officials—from the beginning, it was clear that the United States could not easily meet the Saudi conditions either. (It should also be noted that all three titles would need Congressional agreement and support.)

Credible defense: in the aftermath of the drone attacks in 2019 on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities and oilfield – most probably by Houthi forces – the United States did not come to defend its ally, and President Trump even said that he did not promise to protect the Saudis, and called on the Saudis to stop the war against the Houthis, which they did. Yet, it has been widely doubted that a firm US military commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security could pass Congress unless coupled with the normalization of relations with Israel. Yet, there were speculations that Biden could bypass Congress, but it was not thought likely. As an “alternative,” some sources mentioned “an Article 4.5 solution,” stopping just short of a treaty alliance that requires Senate approval but providing for a written commitment of mutual defense.

Modern defense equipment: although the United States is Saudi Arabia’s biggest arms supplier (some 60% of Saudi arms imports come from the US), Saudi Arabia demands access to the most modern weapons technologies, which, however, would be against US law, which directs the President to assess and make sure that “a proposed sale or export of defense articles or services to a Middle Eastern country other than Israel … will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge … over military threats”.

A civilian nuclear program: since the mid-1990s, there have been reports that Saudi Arabia would want to develop a nuclear program. Yet, it was the US-Saudi Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation signed in 2008 in which the parties agreed to “establish a comprehensive framework for cooperation in the development of environmentally sustainable, safe, and secure civilian nuclear energy through a series of complementary agreements … to develop civilian nuclear energy for use in medicine, industry, and power generation … in accordance with evolving International Atomic Energy Agency guidance and standards. Saudi Arabia has stated its intent to rely on international markets for nuclear fuel and not to pursue sensitive nuclear technologies…” Although very little can be concretely known about the details of the presently demanded civilian nuclear program, in 2017, the Saudi National Atomic Energy Program was launched, including program elements of both large nuclear power plants and small modular reactors, as well as a nuclear fuel cycle.  This would also include uranium extraction and mining, and several sources raise the issue of an eventual local uranium enrichment, especially as Saudi Arabia has expressed the intention to acquire the technical capability to enrich it itself. This would make Saudi Arabia the first Arab state to have uranium enrichment capacity: the neighboring UAE, which already has four nuclear power plant units (Barakah-1-4) in operation, imports its nuclear fuel. On the other side of the Persian Gulf, however, Iran does have uranium enrichment capability, which, while it was limited under the JCPOA, was still left “allowed” by the international community, much criticized by Israel. The Iranian capability – the full nuclear fuel cycle and the international concern over the eventual military element of the Iranian program despite the Iranian statement of the civilian nature of the program – was one more reason why, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the other Saudi officials said, should Iran develop nuclear weaponsSaudi Arabia will get them, too.

Based on the above, there is a general understanding that should the US Congress approve a civilian nuclear technology agreement with Saudi Arabia, part of the deal should be a Saudi commitment to forgo enrichment and reprocessing nuclear material, as the two most proliferation-risky technologies. It is far from certain if Saudi Arabia can convince the Biden administration to agree to such a Saudi capability and, in such a case, what Congress’s reaction would be. However, Saudi Arabia may have a trump card: there have been reportson Saudi-Chinese negotiations regarding the eventual Saudi nuclear development. From the US perspective, however, the prospects of an eventually nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia would be against US interests in the region and should be avoided. An alternative could be a regional nuclear fuel cycle or uranium enrichment shared and supervised by regional actors, or even a sub-regional nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Persian Gulf – issues raised in the past decades but never materialized.