Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Intentions?


I was a bit surprised to read this morning’s Edward Markey authored oped in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why is Bush Helping Saudi Arabia Build Nukes?
With all due respect to Congressman Markey who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the article is laced with a hubris about American power that is out of sync with reality. The piece seems to suggest that America can dictate to the Saudis what energy systems they will build or not build and seems to think that the American taxpayer is carrying the burden for Saudi Arabian technological development.

I don’t want to drill deep into this one for time reasons — so let me stay on the surface. First, the Saudis have helped fund and offset various US strategic needs for decades. This kind of international support has some fungibility. The Saudis are not an “aid case” and if getting nuclear technology assistance from the U.S. have paid for it many times over. To try and set accounting for what we have done for them and they for us in one of the key strategic relationships in the world would be counterproductive.
But more importantly, the Saudis want a non-weapons oriented nuclear energy industry not just for consumption needs but for science and building an engineering base in the country in one of the key energy sectors.
America can’t dictate to the Saudis to go solar. But along those lines, as King Saud University is doing now in nanotechnology and other high technology sectors, it would not surprise me at all if the Saudis invested in engineering, design and research in photovoltaics like they are planning to do in the nuclear field.
The Saudis can easily buy the technology assistance support in this arena from the French, the British, the Russians, the Italians, or the Japanese — and all of it is legal. There are no proliferation issues involved — and it’s disingenuous for Markey to assert that “nukes” like beneath Saudi Arabia’s intentions, when they have said clearly that they will not build or acquire the capacity to weaponize this nuclear program.
In my view, Edward Markey — who has been a great leader in a number of important technology arenas — is off target on this and is using the Saudis as a springboard for really wanting to talk about solar capacity development. If that is the case, then write an oped about solar!
As the CEO of Applied Materials Mike Splinter made clear in a speech recently to the New America Foundation, there is a great deal that the American government of which Ed Markey is a key part, is not doing to make solar development practical on an industrial scale in the U.S. Let’s focus on our solar game plan before trying to dictate the energy direction of other nations.
And the other thing frankly is that Markey should visit Saudi Arabia and get a handle on the high technology development in many sectors that the kingdom is investing in. Yes, nuclear energy development and research will be a piece of this — but Cisco Systems is installing one of the biggest, highest capacity networks for data movement in the world in one of the new economic cities. Again, Markey should ask whether such a thing is happening in the U.S. — and why not.
Hopefully Congressman Markey will reorient his perspective here because undermining the peaceful use of nuclear energy abroad, particularly with key allies, is no way to foster the international partnerships needed to deal both with fossil fuel dependence and global warming.
— Steve Clemons


11 comments on “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Intentions?

  1. Kathleen says:

    Robert Frost… good one.


  2. WigWag says:

    Robert Frost
    Some say the world will end in fire;
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To know that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.


  3. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve, where nuclear power is concerned, there are *always* proliferation issues involved.
    And if you are right that we have no control over what kinds of technology Saudi Arabia develops, then there is no real need for us to assist them, is there?
    Your complacent attitude about Saudi goodness, stability and trustworthiness is one that Markey cannot afford, given his position. And I doubt his sound judgment is in need of the kind of attitude adjustment that comes from joining the gang on one of those hospitable Saudi Arabian junkets.
    And I can’t see how Saudi Arabia is going to be a key “partner” in addressing our fossil fuel dependence. They are one of the largest stakeholders in the prolongation of that dependence.
    I wrote more about this in response to Sameer’s post.


  4. arthurdecco says:

    Steve Clemons said: “Hopefully Congressman Markey will reorient his perspective here because undermining the peaceful use of nuclear energy abroad, particularly with key allies, is no way to foster the international partnerships needed to deal both with fossil fuel dependence and global warming.”
    I wholeheartedly agree.
    I wonder how well Iran would take to an offer of “fostering partnerships” regarding the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the Middle East?
    It’s likely they’d be receptive to the proposal.
    Wouldn’t sitting down with everyone all at once would make a refreshing change from the saber-rattling and outright lying American and Israeli politicians are using now in lieu of a rational strategy and dialogue in the region, if we’re to “to foster the international partnerships needed to deal both with fossil fuel dependence and global warming”?


  5. Morton says:

    Belligerent actions by her neighbors–including trying to wipe her
    out at the start–is largely the reason why Israel developed nuclear
    weapons in the first place. To my knowledge, she has never
    threatened to nuke anyone, including Iran, and certainly not Saudi
    Arabia. Nor does she say anything that could be misinterpreted as
    “wipe so and so off the map.” Or suggest that such and such
    regimes are despicable and should disappear, etc.
    That said, Israel should join the NPT.


  6. just there recently... says:

    Just a quick comment on your post on Saudi/nuclear —
    while it’s counterintuitive, Saudi Arabia actually has
    a pretty severe natural gas shortage right now, which is why they’re looking at alternatives to gas for power generation, other than fuel oil, which they’d rather export. Long
    story as to why, but very disappointing results for
    their drilling program in the Empty Quarter have
    solidified the poor outlook for keeping up with gas
    demand for electricity (growing 10%+ annually due to
    subsidies) and all the huge petrochemical plants
    they’re building. I was told while I was over there a
    month ago that gas demand was part of their motivation
    for patching up relations with Qatar last fall.


  7. Kathleen says:

    ckrantz.. exactly, or for that matter, why a nuclear Israel isn’t a problem either. Surely all the belligerent talk from the US and Israel is causing others in the region to want to have a nuclear deterrant. What are the Saudis and Iranians supposed to say, “Oh no, we’re fine with our sling shots”?


  8. ckrantz says:

    The Saudis I belive have been on the verge of starting a nuclear program several times.
    More interesting is why a nuclear Iran is an problem but a saudi is not. And what the Israeli view is on a saudi nuclear power.


  9. jw says:

    the issue strikes me as more complicated than you posit — especially given episodic reports that Saudis (with or without official blessing) met periodically with AQKhan.
    the fact that others with less rigid nuclear technology controls might sell to Saudi Arabia is hardly a reason for us to lower our threshold of concern. we made that mistake with India.
    in every such nuclear transaction there are potential proliferation issues; we should be having serious discussions with other nuclear suppliers in the appropriate fora.


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