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The Strategy Behind Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Programme

BY Ahmad Sas



The Strategy Behind Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Programme

By Ahmad Sas – The rapid developments of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme indicate their seriousness to join the nuclear club. Satellite images released in April 2019 by Bloomberg Politics confirm that work on the country’s first nuclear reactor is nearly complete. These images coincided with licenses issued by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) for six companies to sell Riyadh the needed technology to launch their nuclear programme. This nuclear transformation retains many strategic dynamics centred around the economic reforms presented by the Saudi Vision 2030, along with security concerns related to the energy sector and enhancing Riyadh’s position as an emerging global power.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Riyadh has been open about its ambitions for a peaceful nuclear programme since 2014 and has not breached any international treaties. Nevertheless, the agency has urged Saudi Arabia to sign a stricter agreement than the current Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) which it has been a signatory to since 2009. This treaty holds Riyadh to a minimum reporting responsibility on its nuclear activities. From its side, Saudi Arabia showed a commitment to placing its nuclear facilities under inspection from the IAEA but has not yet agreed to limit the enrichment of uranium. This position is justified by the international community’s treatment of Iran’s nuclear programme, which guarantees Tehran’s right to enrich uranium under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

From the context of Iranian nuclear ambitions, Riyadh’s nuclear plans may be understood as a form of long-term nuclear deterrence. Despite IAEA certifications of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, many regional actors question the credibility of the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric for its “peaceful programme.” Tehran’s regular threats to raise uranium enrichment levels and to reproduce nuclear centrifuges reactors, reflect the lack of a proper strategy to ultimately neutralise its aggressive behaviour and undermine the perception of it’s good-faith commitment to the JCPOA.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme is a strategic response to Tehran. The rapid innovations underline the urgency of catching-up in order to reach and surpass Iran’s level of nuclear capability to take advantage of the ten-year restrictions imposed by the JCPOA. Until now, however, there is no nuclear arms race and Saudi Arabia is genuinely looking to enhance its alternative energy sources despite the threat posed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear policy is ambitious. Riyadh aims to construct seventeen nuclear reactors with an allocated budget of more than $80 billion (USD) the next two decades. According to officials, the new plants will be located to the east and the west of the country, where major population centres are concentrated, and will be built with advanced technology standards and the highest safety measures in place. Additionally, the first, nearly complete, reactor is located in Riyadh in the south-west corner of the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and is meant for research and energy production. Aramco — the national oil and gas giant — equipped this reactor with a new academy for training in nuclear and renewable energy. This is one of the main development projects of the Saudi 2030 Vision, which focuses on the diversification of the economy and energy sources. Nuclear energy will reduce the local usage of hydrocarbons and provide efficient means to cover Saudi Arabia’s increasing need for civilian electricity and to operate the water desalination plants needed to produce, clean, potable water. Saudi Arabia is ranked fifth, globally, for energy consumption, with more than 700 thousand barrels a day required to cover its needs. Reducing dependency on oil will increase the capacity for exportation and for developing the uranium extraction sector, knowing that the reserves in the Saudi deserts represent up to 6% of the international total. These measures will increase the state’s resources to face the challenges of oil price fluctuations and the high costs of economic reforms in the 2030 Vision, meant to create jobs and diversify the national income while developing professional competencies in the field of scientific research for energy development. Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme is a part of a larger nuclear transformation in the region. Turkey, along with Riyadh’s closest allies, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, are already set to establish their own nuclear power facilities to deal with their energy deficiencies.


The Euro-Gulf Information Centre is committed to tracking the nuclear transformation in the region and support peaceful programmes and economic diversification.