The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) newly operational nuclear reactor – the first in the Arab world – is a landmark development for the entire region. The Barakah nuclear plant also represents a significant test of management and responsibility for the UAE’s leadership. Abu Dhabi’s nuclear program retains the potential to influence the global energy market in the long term.

Worryingly though, it could provide opportunities for terrorist attacks and create dilemmas for neighboring states. Overall, nuclear development in the Gulf can impact the rest of the world’s perception of the region—seeing it as a potential hub of growth and development, or increasingly dangerous if tensions escalate.

An Evolving Energy Landscape

The development of nuclear technologies contributes to the UAE’s growing image as a modern, reliable partner for world powers that can be trusted with global responsibilities, despite the political instability that characterizes the Middle East, and despite the leadership’s recent history of meddling in the various conflicts that plague the MENA region, from Yemen to Libya.

Local nuclear production is part of the UAE’s efforts to diversify the economy.

Moreover, considering Abu Dhabi’s energy strategy, local nuclear production is part of the UAE’s efforts to diversify the economy. Abu Dhabi’s leaders intend to reduce the country’s domestic reliance on hydrocarbons as the main source of electricity, even as they aim to free up more oil for domestic fuel consumption and export.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s nuclear program is unlikely to reduce the country’s oil and gas output at least in the short term. Even though the energy market has suffered greatly from the economic consequences related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Abu Dhabi is aware that oil and especially gas consumption are expected to increase in the coming years, particularly in East Asia. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that China’s dependency on energy imports will increase from 70.9 percent in 2018 to 79.5 percent in 2040, while India’s energy need is expected to go from 77 percent to 90 percent in the same period.

A Nuclear Gulf?

The Barakah plant is not only a test of the UAE’s plan of modernization, it is also a test for the potential of nuclear energy industry in the Gulf region. The site was developed by a consortium of companies led by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and South Korea’s Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO).

This format could serve as the base for other international energy companies with experience in the field of nuclear energy—most are based in the United States (US), the European Union (EU), China, and Russia—to increase their engagements in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf.

To encourage such prospect, the UAE has adopted a policy of complete transparency, signing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety, which required a change in Emirati law to establish minimum safety standards. The UAE has done this not only to attract investments, but also to prevent accusations of proliferation.

Major energy firms like KEPCO, retain a vested interest in turning the Barakah plant into a success story for a number of reasons. Not only does the project highlight KEPCO’s engineering capabilities, but success in the region could reduce negative perceptions about nuclear energy instilled by infamous incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi.

Success in the region could reduce negative perceptions about nuclear energy instilled by infamous incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi.

Several states worldwide continue to have significant safety concerns when it comes to operating nuclear facilities. In 2011, four of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states abandoned their joint declaration made in 2006 for developing a civilian nuclear program following the Fukushima incident. Only the UAE and Saudi Arabia continued with their plans.

Therefore, any issue with the Barakah site is an issue for the entire industry. If successful, nuclear energy in the Gulf would be a big win for the nuclear sector worldwide—provided it can operate without problems in a region of perceived instability—it could prove that it can operate anywhere in the future. This would help the industry in its growing competition with the expanding renewable energy industry.

The UAE is an already relatively diversified economy, with only 16.6 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) coming from oil revenues in 2018. Abu Dhabi does not rely as heavily on the production of hydrocarbons as other Gulf nations. By comparison, in the same year, 28.7 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP derived from oil. Notably, Riyadh is also planning the development of a nuclear program to cover some of the Kingdom’s domestic energy consumption.

Similar to the UAE, Saudi Arabia is also keen to reduce domestic oil consumption to free up additional crude for export. Already in 2011, Saudi Arabia planned to construct 16 nuclear power reactors throughout the Kingdom. A project of such scale represents a significant opportunity for companies that build and operate nuclear plants.

Indeed, although Riyadh currently does not have an operational nuclear site, the significant quantity of uranium reserves in the Kingdom’s soil and the fact that both China and US-based energy firms, such as IP3 International, have expressed interest in expanding nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, support the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Regional Security

That being said, nuclear energy in the Gulf raises multiple concerns about nuclear proliferation and security of the sites.

When it comes to proliferation, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are planning and developing nuclear programs that are intended only for civilian purposes. However, the regional context is characterized by Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s intense fear that their rival, Iran, is working to obtain nuclear military capabilities.

As recently as 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS), declared that Riyadh would follow Tehran “as soon as possible,” in case Iran successfully developed a nuclear bomb.

Techsnabexport (Tenex), a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned Rosatom is set to supply some 50 percent of the enriched uranium needed to operate the UAE plant. Arguably, the UAE-Russia partnership on the Barakah dossier could also pave the way for Moscow and Abu Dhabi to cooperate on nuclear military technology.

Yet, despite fears, it remains unlikely that these civilian nuclear programs will develop into military programs while both Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain under the US security umbrella. Nuclear proliferation would significantly damage relations with the US, something that MbS is particularly keen to avoid.

Contextually, independent from the November 2020 US presidential election results, the risk of proliferation and the growing regional aspirations of both Russia and China could constitute key motivations persuading US decision makers not to reduce Washington’s defense commitments to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The main security concern is that nuclear facilities in the Gulf could be attacked by non-state actors.

The main security concern is that nuclear facilities in the Gulf could be attacked by non-state actors. For instance, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have repeatedly targeted and damaged Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure by operating missiles and drones from over the border.

The UAE is also at risk of an attack by the Houthis. In 2017, the Houthis claimed to have launched a missile attack targeting Barakah itself. There are additional concerns regarding the prospect of terrorist groups such as Daesh and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attempting to infiltrate and sabotage the Gulf’s new nuclear facilities. Despite that the chances of success of an infiltration mission are extremely low even as sabotage attempts are likely and their consequences could be catastrophic.

In the end, the Barakah plant could be an important step in the UAE and other Gulf states’ quest to reduce their dependency on hydrocarbons while international nuclear firms are keen to expand their regional engagement.

However, it is important to underscore the major security risks related to nuclear development in the Gulf as the ongoing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia —compounded with the presence of nuclear plants in a region that is often the target of powerful non-state actors and jihadist groups—makes nuclear proliferation a concerning prospect.

 

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