Saudi officials announced on Monday that they would seek to limit imports of uranium to generate nuclear energy by developing a domestic extraction program to foster “self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel.”
While the Saudi government has not expressed a desire to create nuclear weapons, it remains publicly concerned that regional rival Iran may be developing nuclear weapons in violation of international law, and Saudi officials in the past have not dismissed the possibility of developing nuclear weapons if necessary to defend against a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Regarding the production of uranium in the kingdom, this is a program which is our first step towards self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel,” the Saudi official in charge of the atomic energy, Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, said on Monday, according to Reuters. Yamani was speaking before an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference in Abu Dhabi, according to Reuters.
The outlet notes that, while Yamani discussed domestic production of uranium, he did not mention any desire to launch uranium enrichment programs in Saudi Arabia. Most uranium is stable and must be enriched to extract the radioactive isotopes used for nuclear energy programs—and nuclear weapons. Yamani did state categorically that the harvesting of uranium domestically was meant “to introduce nuclear power for peaceful purposes.”
“The IAEA also has been requested to conduct an integrated review of our nuclear infrastructure during the second quarter of 2018,” he added.
In a separate report on Tuesday, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had sent official requests to international nuclear reactor builders for more information on commissioning the construction of reactors to be used in new plants. Reuters cited an “industry source” who told the outlet, “Saudi Arabia has just sent the request for information to various companies and it is being examined.”
A nationwide overhaul of energy infrastructure is part of what the Saudi regime calls “Vision 2030,” a plan to bring the nation into the 21st century with the development of giant infrastructure developments and industrial projects. On Tuesday, Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, a columnist for the Saudi newspaper al-Arabiya, described the 2030 program as featuring “mega projects” that “are about the ‘wow factor’—futuristic ideas, dreams, creativity, entertainment, technology and modernity.” Reuters noted in its report that Saudi Arabia’s plan proposes “building some 17.6 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2032, the equivalent of about 17 reactors.”
Vision 2030 is a pet project of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has taken on a prominent role as the leader of the “modernization” of the country. Bin Salman has made said in public statements that he does not see modernization as merely economic. Last week, he said the purpose of the 2030 plan was to create “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.”
Mohammed bin Salman explicitly referred to a “moderate Islam that is open … to all religions,” a marked shift from the decades that Saudi Arabia has spent investing in fundamentalist Wahhabi Sunni Islamic ideology.
The Kingdom appears to be endeavoring to position itself as a reasonable cooperative partner against the increasingly belligerent and expansive Iran, and its overtly peaceful nuclear ambitions are rekindling old concerns that the Saudis may be seeking to prepare in the event of Iran’s successful development of a nuclear weapon.
That concern has been around for years. In 2015, amid the development of what would become the Obama Iranian nuclear deal, rumors circulated that Riyadh had reached out to at least one nuclear-armed ally, Pakistan, to inquire about the purchase of a weapon. Pakistan denied the reports.
A month later, an unnamed Saudi official told the Washington Post that the passing of the Iranian nuclear deal “would give a green light to his own government to start a nuclear energy program.”
Saudi officials never announced the launch of such a program despite the ultimate passing of that program. A year later, however, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir asserted that Riyadh would do “whatever we need to do in order to protect our people” in response to a question on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions.