How would a US-Saudi civil nuclear deal work, and what are the challenges?

Conceived as part of wider Mideast deal that includes Israeli-Saudi normalization, nuclear program would be subject to nonproliferation conditions

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) is greeted by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) is greeted by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Saudi Arabia this weekend for talks that were expected to touch on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, one piece of a wider arrangement Washington hopes will lead to the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations.

Below is a description of the key issues involved in a US-Saudi civil nuclear deal, what risks and benefits it may offer the United States and Saudi Arabia, and how it fits within US efforts to broker Israeli-Saudi reconciliation.

Civil nuclear cooperation agreements

Under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the United States may negotiate agreements to engage in significant civil nuclear cooperation with other nations.

It specifies nine nonproliferation criteria those states must meet to keep them from using the technology to develop nuclear arms or transfer sensitive materials to others.

The law stipulates congressional review of such pacts.

What Saudi Arabia hopes to gain

As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia at first glance is not an obvious candidate for a nuclear pact typically aimed at building power plants to generate electricity.

There are two reasons Riyadh may wish to do so.

The first is that under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 reform plan, the kingdom aims to generate substantial renewable energy and reduce emissions. At least some of this is expected to come from nuclear energy.

Critics cite a second potential reason: that Riyadh might wish to develop nuclear expertise in case it someday wished to acquire nuclear weapons despite the safeguards enshrined in any deal with Washington to prevent this.

The Saudi crown prince has long said that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would follow suit, a stance that has fueled deep concern among arms control advocates and some US lawmakers over a possible US-Saudi civil nuclear deal.

The Sunni Muslim kingdom and Shiite revolutionary Iran have been at odds for decades.

What the US hopes to gain

There could be strategic and commercial gains.

US President Jor Biden’s administration has made no secret of its hope to broker a long-shot, multi-part arrangement leading Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations. It believes Saudi support for normalization may hinge partly on striking a civil nuclear deal.

The strategic benefits would be to shore up Israel’s security, build a wider coalition against Iran, and reinforce US ties to one of the wealthiest Arab nations at a time when China is seeking to extend its influence in the Gulf.

The commercial benefit would be to put US industry in a prime spot to win contracts to build Saudi nuclear power plants, as US atomic companies compete with Russia, China and other countries for global business.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, pool)

Hurdles to a deal

A civil nuclear deal is envisaged as part of a wider arrangement on Israeli-Saudi normalization, something that is all but inconceivable while the war between Israel and Hamas rages in the Gaza Strip.

War erupted in October when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

It is hard to imagine the Saudis being willing to normalize relations while the Arab world fumes at the scale of reported Palestinian fatalities.

Wider agreement that could include nuclear component

The United States hopes to find a way to give Saudi Arabia several things it wants — a civil nuclear pact, security guarantees and a pathway toward a Palestinian state, in return for Riyadh agreeing to normalize relations with Israel.

Earlier this month, seven people familiar with the matter told Reuters the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia were finalizing an agreement for US security guarantees and civilian nuclear assistance to Riyadh.

However, the wider Israel-Saudi normalization envisaged as part of a Middle East “grand bargain” remains elusive.

Key issues to work out

A key issue is whether Washington might agree to build a uranium enrichment facility on Saudi territory, when it might do so, and whether Saudi personnel might have access to it or it would be run solely by US staff in a “black box” arrangement.

Without rigorous safeguards built into an agreement, Saudi Arabia, which has uranium ore, could theoretically use an enrichment facility to produce highly enriched uranium, which, if purified enough, can yield fissile material for bombs.

Another issue is whether Riyadh would agree to make a Saudi investment in a US-based and US-owned uranium enrichment plant and to hire US companies to build Saudi nuclear reactors.

Most Popular
read more: