The United Arab Emirates will soon be the first Arab state with a nuclear power program and the first to join the civilian nuclear club in more than a quarter of a century. Barring any delays, the country’s first reactor is scheduled to be operational by May 2017, after further inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure the fuel is used only for peaceful purposes. So far, the project is on budget and on schedule. The remaining three 1,400 megawatt South Korean-designed reactors are under construction and will be gradually connected to the grid by May 2020.
Along with such progress have come concerns about Arab states using their forthcoming nuclear capabilities to build a weapon sometime in the future. Last year, Israel’s former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, stated that “We see signs that countries in the Arab world are preparing to acquire nuclear weapons, that they are not willing to sit quietly with Iran on the brink of a nuclear or atomic bomb.” A year before that, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that the “Iran deal will provoke other countries in the region to pursue equivalent nuclear capabilities, almost certainly Saudi Arabia.” And during one of her speeches to Goldman Sachs in 2013, according to transcripts released by Wikileaks, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The Saudis are not going to stand by. They’re already trying to figure out how they will get their own nuclear weapons. Then the Emiratis are not going to let the Saudis have their own nuclear weapons… and then the race is off.”
But the UAE, which is the farthest along among the Arab states in reaching its nuclear power goals, has made a convincing case that it needs nuclear power to address its rising demand for energy, reduce its fossil fuel dependence, and free up more oil for exports. To assuage worries about its intentions, in an April 2008 white paper, Abu Dhabi made a commitment to forgo uranium enrichment. The same was reflected in its 2009 “123” nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States (named after Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954), whose language barring enrichment and reprocessing is often referred to in the nuclear community as the “nonproliferation gold standard.” That agreement opened the doors for international cooperation, and during 2008–13 the UAE signed agreements with Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom that involved the transfer of technology, experts, nuclear materials, and instruments. In 2009, the Korea Electric Power Corporation won a contract to build the reactors.
The UAE’s arguments for its nuclear program make sense. Although the oil-rich country is heavily reliant on fossil fuel and has traditionally preferred a nuclear-free Gulf, it is feeling the pressure to diversify its energy mix to protect the nation’s natural resources and preserve them for exports. It is estimated that, once completed, the country’s new reactors will meet up to a quarter of the UAE’s electricity demand. Further, there is a great amount of public support for developing nuclear technology as a way to create jobs and reduce pollution. (The UAE currently ranks eighth on the World Bank’s listing of countries by CO2 emissions per capita.) According to the latest public opinion poll on nuclear technology, conducted in 2012, 82 percent of Emiratis favored developing nuclear power and 89 percent supported the building of a nuclear plant. In addition, 89 percent felt that the peaceful use of nuclear energy was either “extremely important,” “very important,” or “important” for the UAE.
Of course, the UAE and other Arab states are not blind to the Iranian nuclear threat, especially in light of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Polling found that the Emiratis are even more skeptical than the Saudis of the JCPOA, with 91 percent stating they do not support the deal and 71 percent saying the deal is “only good for Iran, but bad for the Arab States.” Further, since the nuclear deal permits Iran to pursue unrestricted uranium enrichment in the future for peaceful means, other countries in the region have justification for their own enrichment programs.
Although, in the end, the Arab Gulf countries cautiously and conditionally threw their support behind the Iran nuclear deal, there are some indications that the UAE might be interested in renegotiating the “123 agreement” in the JCPOA’s wake. For example, after the deal was signed, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, indicated that his country might reevaluate its position on domestic enrichment, possibly indicating that it no longer felt bound by its agreement with the United States. According to California Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who is also chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, al-Otaiba told him in a 2015 telephone call, “Your worst enemy has achieved this right to enrich. It’s a right to enrich now that your friends are going to want, too, and we won’t be the only country.”
Indeed, the JCPOA has put the UAE in an uncomfortable position, particularly if it feels that the agreement it signed with Washington carries less favorable terms than the one the United States signed with Iran. Apparently, the UAE's adherence to the "123" deal was a target of criticism from other Arab governments for that very reason. In the case of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a full nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States is currently pending because both countries, thus far, have resisted U.S. pressure and have insisted on leaving their uranium enrichment option open.
But Iran isn’t the only reason why we might be at the beginning stages of an Arab arms race. The Saudis don’t want to be “one-upped” by the Emiratis, so they too have embarked on a very ambitious nuclear plan (especially with oil prices at around $50 a barrel), involving 16 nuclear reactors to be built by 2032. Riyadh has already signed nuclear cooperation agreements with China, Russia, and South Korea, among others, and has announced that it will select the nuclear power plant site “very soon.” Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey are also planning to develop independent nuclear energy programs. There is also the risk that the UAE will share its nuclear know-how in the future with other countries in the Middle East that are less committed to nonproliferation. The UAE officials have already said that the country is willing to share its nuclear expertise with other newcomers to the nuclear club, such as Turkey and Jordan
For Iran’s Arab neighbors, the JCPOA may have served the interests of Western powers, but it has done little to curb Iran’s regional conduct or arguably its longer-term nuclear ambitions. It is impossible to isolate and disconnect the Arab state’s nuclear rationale from the broader regional context. The JCPOA, if it remains intact, buys Iran’s neighbors a decade during which they can continue with their nuclear push to better prepare themselves for Tehran’s rise. In the long-term, the UAE’s civilian nuclear program can reduce the costs associated with developing military programs. If the UAE, at some point in the future, decides that it must have military nuclear capabilities, the soon-to-be operational civilian nuclear program—which includes the plants, technologies, materials, human capital, and accumulated expertise—can pave a relatively quick and easy pathway to nuclear arms.
Of course, the international community has tools to confront this danger, primarily thanks to the UAE’s dependence on foreign manpower and infrastructure expertise: only 57 percent of the workers at the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation are Emirati. But the government has recognized this over-reliance on expatriates, and is now pushing for the “Emiratization” of all areas of operation. Further, an actual decision by the UAE to opt for nuclear weapons depends on a few factors; chief among them are Washington’s and Tehran’s compliance with the nuclear obligations under the JCPOA and the degree to which the United States is attentive to its ally’s security concerns.
At any rate, it would not serve the UAE’s interests to renegotiate or walk away from its nonproliferation obligations any time soon. Doing so would only endanger the completion of its own nuclear program. There is also the question of whether the JCPOA will remain intact under President Donald Trump, given his pledge to scrap the deal. Either way, it will be at least a decade before the UAE could even consider developing nuclear military capabilities. So at least for now, we should very much stay calm and let the UAE carry on, as it seems unlikely that the UAE’s nuclear energy program poses any immediate proliferation risks.