At a time when the world was expecting Saudi Arabia to join the UAE and Bahrain in normalising relations with Israel, a noted British daily published a news story that has since raised Israeli concerns over the kingdom’s nascent nuclear programme.
On 17 September 2020, an article in The Guardian reported that Chinese geologists have prepared a report for Saudi Arabia — as part of their nuclear energy cooperation agreement — which names locations having large reserves of uranium ore in the kingdom that could be sufficient for its domestic production of nuclear fuel.
This news comes on the heels of an earlier Wall Street Journal report that the kingdom has also already constructed a facility with Chinese assistance for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, a major development in Riyadh’s avowedly peaceful nuclear programme. The report states that the facility is being built far away from the eastern borders close to Iran, with the help of two Chinese companies near the Saudi city of Ula, midway between Medina and Tabuk.
The motives of China in helping Saudi Arabia with its nuclear programme seem dubious. Recent Chinese involvement in building Saudi nuclear capabilities comes at a time when there is news of its major partnership with Iran (some reports say to the tune of US$400 billion), which apart from making huge investments in the sanctions-hit country also covers arms sale.
It is well-known that China’s economic and geopolitical dragon rose mainly in the shadow of West Asian wars in the 2000s, and so it is in Beijing’s interest to keep West Asia a troubled region. By having defence cooperation with both adversaries (Saudi Arabia and Iran) at the same time, China seems to be burnishing a new ‘arc of crisis’ in the volatile region for its own Great Game.
By supporting Iran when it has restarted uranium enrichment and by helping Saudi Arabia extract and process its indigenous fissile raw material, Beijing seems to be setting up and weaponising the two arch-rivals of the Gulf, thereby catalysing a nuclear arms race in West Asia, so that US military is never able to pivot effectively to China’s backyard in the Indo-Pacific.
The Saudi yellowcake
Although there has been no official Israeli statement in response to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme-related reports, Israel Kasnett of the Jewish News Syndicate observes: “Saudi nuclear capability, even if for peaceful purposes, could still place the Saudis at the threshold of nuclear military capability, which has Israel greatly concerned.” Another Israeli commentator is even wary of a prospective UAE purchase of sophisticated weaponry from the US in the wake of the Abraham Accords, for that might lead to the UAE receiving F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and electronic warfare planes.
Thus, Azriel Bermant warns in his article published in Foreign Policy: “The United States does not deny that the arms package has been facilitated by the normalisation deal between Israel and the UAE, but neither the administration of US President Donald Trump nor the Netanyahu government are willing to acknowledge the dangers of transferring sophisticated arms to countries that are allies today but could be enemies tomorrow.”
It is noteworthy that the New York Times reported in early August 2020 that US intelligence agencies are “scrutinizing” Saudi efforts to build industrial capacity with Chinese help to produce nuclear fuel that could later be enriched to weapons-grade level. However, the article averred that US analysts had yet to draw firm conclusions about some of the sites under scrutiny and believed that even if Saudi Arabia decided to pursue a military nuclear programme, it might take many years before coming close to producing a single nuclear warhead.
For its part, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has published a document that states it would help Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory Saudi Arabia’s efforts to develop nuclear fuel for a peaceful programme, yet it wants the kingdom to adopt Additional Protocols so that the nuclear watchdog could monitor its nuclear programme more effectively. “The Additional Protocol is the standard we all want, we all aspire to,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi stressed.
The choice of China
The Saudi regime’s choice of China for assisting it in its nuclear programme has also raised eyebrows in the international community. Saeed Ghasseminejad, a senior Iran and financial economics adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies believes that Saudis decided to go with Chinese companies because if the kingdom “decided to move towards military nuclear capabilities, China and Chinese companies will be more accommodating or at least less hostile towards such a move.”
In addition, Saudi Arabia is unhappy about prospective US plans for a reduction in the US naval presence in the Gulf and its greater focus on the Indo-Pacific, which is in evidence with its recent decision to withdraw two squadrons of US airforce and two Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi oil facilities (deployed last year after the 2019 drone attacks on Aramco oil refineries). According to Dr Mordechai Cheziza of the Bar Ilan University in Israel, “The Kingdom can no longer count on Washington’s willingness to counter Iran, and might well have determined that it will have to deter Iran on its own. Therefore, until the Iranian nuclear program is permanently terminated, the Saudis will most likely keep the option open to produce their own fuel, thereby providing a pathway to a weapon”.
Therefore, the Kingdom is seeking to diversify its strategic foreign partnerships and has turned to China with which it has historical relations in the security dimension. In the late 1980s, international concerns were raised when Riyadh had acquired 36 Chinese DF-3 (CSS-2 by NATO) nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and nine launchers. Then in 2014, US magazine Newsweek reported that Saudi Arabia had acquired CSS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China in 2007.
In fact, it was in August 2017 (at a time when US withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal – the JCPOA – seemed imminent) that Saudi Arabia and China agreed to cooperate on nuclear energy projects, with the China Nuclear Engineering Corporation (CNEC) signing an MoU with the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) to pursue further cooperation in order to explore and assess uranium and thorium resources. The Saudi Technology Development and Investment Company (Taqnia) subsequently signed another MoU with CNEC to develop water desalination projects using gas-cooled nuclear reactors.
China’s ‘arc of crisis’
It is noteworthy that China has had a dubious history in providing nuclear technology to countries in West Asia. As far back as 1983, China secretly made an agreement with Algeria to build a nuclear reactor. A Washington Times report then charged China of helping “Algeria develop nuclear weapons”. It was only in 1991 that Algeria finally placed this nuclear reactor under IAEA safeguards.
It is now feared that the Saudi acquisition of nuclear capability would draw other regional powers such as Turkey and Egypt to join the regional nuclear race, which might turn conflict-torn West Asia even more volatile. Last year, maverick Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that it was unacceptable that the international community should stop Ankara from obtaining its own nuclear weapons, although he fell short of stating whether Turkey had plans to obtain them. “Why we shouldn’t have nuclear warheads while others do? This, I cannot accept,” he reportedly told his own party members in September last year.
The actions of China in spreading nuclear technology to feuding countries of West Asia could not only spur a regional nuclear arms race but also allow nuclear assets to fall into the hands of radical non-state actors. As an aspiring global superpower, China clearly needs to play a more mature and responsible role in upholding international peace and security.
The author is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views are personal.