Saudi Arabia has been seeking to develop a nuclear energy program with the help of the United States for years. However, the Saudi government has not agreed to conditions intended to prevent the development of nuclear weapons or helping other nations do so. Consequently, the Saudi government has begun to explore options to work with other countries, including China, Russia, or a U.S. ally. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been seeking to renew its partnership with the United States by offering to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for U.S. cooperation on building nuclear reactors and other guarantees.
This recent development provides insight into the difficulties and distrust between Washington and Riyadh and into the foreign policy pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This policy seeks greater independence from the United States as it expands partnerships with other world powers, including China. Some analysts see this as part of a strategy to pressure Washington to work with the Saudi government on its own terms, while others see the prince aiming to create a multipolar world where the United States plays a less dominant role.
However, the Saudi nuclear efforts have raised concerns about the specter of proliferation, making some American officials nervous. The kingdom’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed, has stated that Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Any civilian nuclear program has dual-use elements that could aid a country in producing weapons-grade material.
While some U.S. officials are willing to support Saudi Arabia’s use of uranium for energy purposes, they require countries to meet high standards of nonproliferation before cooperating on a nuclear program, including in some cases banning uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing in their territory. Saudi Arabia has refused to commit to these restrictions, which would undermine their goal of enriching and selling uranium. Even if Saudi officials express willingness to sign a 123 agreement, any deal would face significant political obstacles in Washington. President Biden distrusts Prince Mohammed, and many lawmakers from both parties believe Saudi Arabia has been a destabilizing force.
The State Department has been negotiating an agreement with Saudi Arabia since 2012, but the Saudi government has refused to commit to the necessary restrictions. The Biden administration has stated that it is committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s clean energy transition, including its efforts to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, but requires the highest international standards on safety, nonproliferation, export controls, and physical security.
The Saudi energy ministry has stated that the kingdom’s “peaceful nuclear power program” would be based on transparency and international best practices and that it would work closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and countries that have signed general agreements with the Saudis to help with nuclear energy. Saudi Arabia also plans to exploit the country’s potentially vast uranium deposits for both energy and export, creating a new revenue source for the kingdom and increasing Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical heft.
American and Saudi champions of nuclear power saw an opening when President Trump sought to build ties with Prince Mohammed. The initial efforts on energy began when a consortium of American companies, including Westinghouse, expressed interest in Saudi Arabia’s proposed nuclear reactor project. However, these efforts stalled after the two men became embroiled in separate controversies. The Saudi government is now considering working with other countries to develop its nuclear energy program, including China, Russia, or a U.S. ally.