If Washington holds back, Riyadh could turn to Beijing to go nuclear
Civil nuclear power in the Mideast is becoming another sore point between China and the United States. Irked by US indecision, Saudi leaders might turn eastward. The Abraham Accords and Israeli resistance hover in the background. Nuclear deals are “deeply political”.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Saudi Arabia’s plan to diversify its energy sources by developing nuclear power opens a new point of contention between China and the United States, as the two superpowers increasingly challenge each other for economic, diplomatic, and military influence in the Middle East.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudi leaders are carefully evaluating a Chinese proposal to build the country’s first nuclear power plant.
This would fit with the Vision 2030 plan promoted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which would introduce major economic and social reforms in the country, but it also risks irking the United States, which is not inclined to see the kingdom develop nuclear weapons.
According to the US business daily, state-owned China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) has proposed to build a plant in the east of the country, not far from the border with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Saudi officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal said that negotiations between Riyadh and Beijing could push the White House to compromise on the principles of nuclear non-proliferation that have so far blocked an agreement with the United States. However, bin Salman is just as ready to push forward with China if negotiations with his reluctant US ally fail.
In a sign of openness, “China will continue to conduct mutually beneficial cooperation with Saudi Arabia in various fields, including civil nuclear energy, while strictly abiding by international non-proliferation obligations,” said a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry at a recent press conference.
In the past, Saudi Arabia has urged the United States to work jointly on civil nuclear power in exchange of normalising ties with Israel within the framework of the Abraham Accords. Currently, the two Middle Eastern countries do not have official diplomatic relations.
However, US and Israeli fears and the possibility that Riyadh might build nuclear weapons have held back Saudi ambitions. Israel is the only nuclear power in the region and intends to keep it that way.
The situation is different for China, which does not depend on non-proliferation obligations. In the past year, it has boosted ties with Gulf countries, starting with Saudi Arabia, especially after it helped its rapprochement with its historic rival, Iran.
Beijing is also the largest buyer of Saudi crude, while Saudi Arabia remains the world's largest producer.
Although Riyadh is the most important buyer of US weapons, and the two countries have long maintained close relations, the latter have suffered in recent years after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudis are pushing the Americans for guarantees if they ever decide to establish formal ties with Israel. The US, however, does not seem ready to make concessions on nuclear power, thus leaving the door wide open for China to become a key partner for Saudi Arabia.
And China is not alone. In fact, the Saudis are also looking at Russia and France to develop nuclear technology in order to break US resistance.
A final decision should be based on economics and technology, in which the US still has a healthy advantage, and for this reason, would be more than welcome by Saudi leaders.
In years to come, nuclear energy is expected to gain ground as a source of energy in oil- and gas-rich Middle East and the rest of the world.
Western analysts and experts are urging Washington not to abandon the race and not bind collaboration to signing the Abraham Accords, because nuclear power is a strategic component of the Vision 2030 plan; otherwise, it might give Beijing (or Moscow) a free rein.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently spoke about the issue, saying that the Biden administration will ask the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for an opinion on nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The agency's response could be of primary importance for future decisions.
Meanwhile, for Sullivan, “There are still some ways to travel" for any agreement between the Saudis and the Israelis.
As for Beijing, it is worth noting that its rapprochement with the country that is the cradle of Sunni Islam has not been affected by complaints over its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Last week, Beijing strongly supported the invitation to Saudi Arabia to join the group of emerging economies at the conclusion of the latest BRICS summit in South Africa.
Last year Riyadh hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a Gulf summit and months later Beijing brokered a rapprochement between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic.
As Jack Dutton, Al-Monitor‘s chief Europe business correspondent, writes: “Deals for nuclear reactors are long-term and lucrative” and “deeply political”.
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