Geopolitics of the Saudi nuclear program

This report investigates how nuclear energy might support Saudi foreign policy since international actors as Russia and China are getting closer to the Saudi Kingdom overshadowing the United States. Besides, this investigation highlights the pro & cons of the Saudi nuclear energy program and the possibility that Riyadh will use its nuclear facilities to pursue the national production of nuclear weapons.

Author: Silvia Boltuc

Abstract: Riyadh has strived to establish its nuclear energy program to diversify its economy, create new job opportunities, localise industrial facilities, and improve living standards. The Saudi energy transition attempts to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil revenues since the recent oil price crises, increasing domestic oil demand, and market turmoil due to the pandemic. This research wants to examine Riyadh’s energy transition promoted in Saudi Vision 2030 and its possible repercussions on the regional and international geopolitical chessboard. This paper also investigates how nuclear energy might support Saudi foreign policy since international actors as Russia and China are getting closer to the Saudi Kingdom overshadowing the United States. Besides, this study highlights the pro & cons of the Saudi nuclear energy program and the possibility that Riyadh will use its nuclear facilities to pursue the national production of nuclear weapons.

Conclusion: The main narrative is that the Saudi Kingdom needs to diversify its energy production because the heavy dependence on oil production and exports have shown its weakness since the oil price crisis. Therefore, Saudi Vision 2030 might be interpreted as Riyadh’s response to the national socio-economic problems and the opportunity to transform the country into a modern logistic hub. This is partially true because Saudi Vision 2030 is the strategy that should support the Kingdom’s energy and economic transition and the attempt to counter the domestic growing oil demand, which will tremendously limit Saudi oil exports. Considering that the national oil demand will reduce Saudi revenues, Vision 2030 is Riyadh’s strategy to develop the domestic economy and still support the country’s development. The energy transition involved massive investments, especially in the nuclear sector. As mentioned before, Riyadh should invest billions of dollars in setting up nuclear power plants and facilities to support the entire nuclear fuel cycle. The recent oil crisis and the pandemic have hugely hit the Saudi economy, and there is the risk that Riyadh will not be able to afford its energy transition program and Saudi Vision 2030’s goals. The international arena is constantly monitoring the Saudi nuclear race because of its geopolitical implications. China, Russia, and Pakistan (and South Korea) are directly involved in Riyadh’s nuclear program because they might provide know-how, new technologies, and investments. On the other hand, Israel, Iran, and the United States are concerned about Riyadh’s nuclear program because of several speculations on the Saudi attempt to establish its nuclear weapons production and raise the country to the level of other nuclear powers. Also, India is monitoring the Saudi nuclear program considering Pakistan’s role in nuclear supplies to Riyadh and Islamabad-New Delhi confrontation on Kashmir. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is promoting and investing in the construction of nuclear power plants to support the energy transition, create new work opportunities, localise Saudi industrial production, and decrease Saudi dependence on oil revenues. On the other hand, whether Saudi Arabia will accomplish its mission to complete the national nuclear program, there will be mutations in the regional geopolitical balances. Since the recent Saudi – US relations have been mined by Khashoggi’s case, Washington might lose its grip on Riyadh and be incapable of controlling/contrasting the Saudi nuclear program. At the same time, other geopolitical actors (China, Russia) are getting closer to Saudi Arabia, and their cooperation in the energy sector might heavily affect the market and the international arena. Saudi Vision 2030 is Riyadh’s attempt to improve its economic development and the geopolitical leverage to make Saudi Arabia less dependent on US control and become an influential key regional and international actor.