Karim Sahib / Reuters A general view of Dubai and the world's tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, December 9, 2015.

The UAE's Nuclear Push

And the Potential Fallout for the Middle East

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 “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.

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