Middle East Nuclear Race is On. What Could Go Wrong?

August 5, 2020

Barakah nuclear plant (official tweet)


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with help from China, has built a facility for the extraction of uranium yellowcake, a potential precursor to fuel for a nuclear reactor, in a remote desert location near the small city of Al Ula, the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported citing Western officials with knowledge of the site.

The facility, which has not been publicly acknowledged, has raised concern among United States and allied officials that the kingdom’s nascent nuclear programme is moving ahead, and Riyadh is keeping open an option to develop nuclear weapons, according to the report.

Disclosure of the yellowcake processing facility is likely to elevate concern in the US Congress about Saudi nuclear ambitions and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 pledge that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

The Saudi Energy Ministry “categorically” denied to the Wall Street Journal the country has built a uranium ore milling facility, but acknowledged contracting with Chinese entities for uranium exploration within Saudi Arabia. 

The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request by the Wall Street Journal for comment. Iran has denied it is interested in developing nuclear weapons. Iranian officials did not respond to a request for comment, the paper reported.

Yellowcake is processed from naturally occurring uranium ore and can be further enriched to create fuel for nuclear power plants and, at very high levels of enrichment, nuclear weapons. 

Saudi Arabia’s has signed agreements with China National Nuclear Corp and China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp following a 2012 pact between Riyadh and Beijing to cooperate on the peaceful development of nuclear energy.

The Saudis have raised concerns about a potential nuclear arms race in the Gulf region by pressing ahead with construction of a research reactor and inviting companies to bid on building two civilian nuclear power reactors without agreeing to oversight and inspection by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency.

A US congressional committee issued a report in May 2019 warning the administration of President Donald Trump was allowing US companies to offer Saudi Arabia nuclear technologies without first obtaining non-proliferation guarantees the know-how would not be used to eventually produce a weapon. 

In February 2019, government whistle-blowers had alerted the US House of Representatives that the Trump administration was bypassing Congress to greenlight future sales of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, without non-proliferation safeguards, thus potentially laying the ground for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Saudi production of yellowcake would be cause for alarm in the US arms control community.

The suspected acquisition of yellowcake was among the concerns raised by the US with Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion that was pre-texted on Saddam Hussein’s alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

At the time, President George W Bush accused Iraq of trying to buy yellowcake from Niger even though CIA intelligence indicated no such transaction ever took place. The discrepancy triggered a US scandal during the Bush presidency.


Nuclear fission has begun in one of four reactors at the Barakah plant, which uses South Korean technology.

The plant was due to open in 2017 but start-up was delayed for what officials said were safety requirements.

The oil-rich UAE wants Barakah to meet a quarter of its energy needs, as it adopts more sustainable energy sources.

Just two weeks ago the UAE sent a probe on a mission to Mars – another high-profile scientific first for the Gulf nation.

The UAE is also investing heavily in solar power – a plentiful energy source in the Gulf. Some energy experts question the logic of Barakah, arguing that solar power is cleaner, cheaper and makes more sense in a region plagued by political tensions and terrorism.

Last year Qatar called the Barakah plant a “flagrant threat to regional peace and environment”. Qatar is a bitter regional rival of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.


The administration of President Donald Trump is bypassing the United States Congress to advance the sale of US nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns it would violate US law guarding against technology transfers, according to a new report by a congressional committee.

Security analysts worry the technology would allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons in the future, potentially contributing to an arms race in the Middle East.

US legislators are concerned about the stability of Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

Multiple unnamed “whistleblowers” have come forward to warn about White House attempts to speed the transfer of highly sensitive US nuclear technology to build new nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, according to the staff report by the House 

11 Responses to “Middle East Nuclear Race is On. What Could Go Wrong?”

  1. […] Middle East Nuclear Race is On. What Could Go Wrong? | Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

  2. redskylite Says:

    Lest we forget, let’s stick to peace.

    “Hiroshima’s leaders say they want the city to be regarded by the world in two ways: as a cautionary tale—a warning about the horrors of nuclear warfare—and as a phoenix that survived those horrors and resurrected itself, a triumph of the human spirit.”


  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    An article about ME nuclear proliferation with no mention of Iran? Weird.

    In case you need a scorecard, Iran and Qatar are the guys with the black hats. These two fund the most terrorism/ Islamist psy-ops in the world.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Dunno about Qatar, but Saudi Arabia bankrolls Al Qaeda and ISIL. The flying planes into buildings and videoing be-headings etc.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Saudi picture complicated, different since the rise of bin Salman. ISIS is basically self-funding now.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          Starts complicated and goes downhill from there. NBS working to make SA locally supreme IMO (and everybody else’s ). ISIL lost big money self funding when it’s caliphate was cleared. Confident, with no proof, it is getting Sunni funding but not from Qatar.
          What could go wrong? The mind boggles!

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    For the last couple of decades, the GOP seems to have been ceding the world to Chinese hegemony, more interested in weapons sales than the major infrastructure (ports, railways, dams, power plants) that ties all of those countries to the Chinese.

  5. John Oneill Says:

    Even though the UAE has some of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, they consume a lot more than they produce, including for desalinisation and power production. If they can use more nuclear for power and water production, they’ll be able to earn more from their gas by exporting it, mostly, to Asia. Japanese gas imports went up considerably after they closed most of their own reactors, and South Korea’s are likely to do the same, if president Moon Jae-In succeeds in his goal of replacing his country’s nuclear power with ‘clean’ gas.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Yes, it makes perfect sense. The countries with about the best solar insolation in the world, which with low labor costs make it about the cheapest energy in the world, low population density and plenty of virtually empty places to put PV and CSP, plenty of wind potential to complement the PV, money to develop them, political instability all around them, and they want to build power that’s expensive, dangerous, (water-sucking?), equality- and democracy-destroying… oh. Never mind. Well, the other stuff.

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