In late August 2017, Saudi Arabia and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on developing desalination plants using gas-cooled nuclear reactors. The MoU was signed between state-owned entities, the Saudi Company for Development and Technical Investment and the China Nuclear Engineering Group Corporation, and provides for the partners to develop a project using nuclear energy in desalination plants. Saudi Arabia is already a leading producer of desalination plants, and in 2012, the Kingdom and China signed a MoU to co-operate on the civilian use of nuclear technology. Saudi Arabia has also signed a number of other nuclear agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina in recent years.
Saudi Arabia is keen to develop its energy sector, particularly given the country’s current heavy reliance on oil. The Kingdom has been trying to diversify its energy mix for years so that it may export most of its crude oil and use other sources of energy to fuel its own domestic services, including its power and desalination plants. Saudi Arabian nuclear advocates claim that developing this source of energy will be vital to maintain the country’s stable economy and standard of living.
Planning for the Saudi-China nuclear desalination project is in its early stages, and there is a possibility that construction on the nuclear desalination plants may never actually eventuate. Riyadh will have to overcome a number of challenges, including high construction costs, a lack of native nuclear-engineering knowledge, and the need to supply large volumes of water to cool the nuclear reactors. Despite these challenges, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear project fits with its political and diplomatic leadership aspirations in the Middle East. In particular, Riyadh’s nuclear plans seem to imply a strategic move to counter Iran’s potential nuclear capability.
The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is set to give a report on Iranian compliance with the international Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in October. The JCPOA was agreed to in 2015 in an effort to curb Iran’s nuclear programme for ten years. US President Donald Trump promised during the 2016 Presidential election campaign to dismantle the nuclear agreement between Iran and the members of the P5+1. Since then, however, Trump has maintained a tough attitude towards Iran but seems to have backed down on his position surrounding the accord.
The Saudis insist that their nuclear plans are totally peaceful and in compliance with nuclear development under the IAEA. Trump’s ambiguity towards the Iranian nuclear agreement, however, may be a factor in whether or not Saudi Arabia adheres to this position. If the pending IAEA report finds that Iran has not adhered to the terms of the JCPOA, Trump may consider it the perfect excuse to opt out of the agreement. Without the JCPOA, Iran could begin to develop its nuclear capacities without the restrictions of the international agreement. If Riyadh does commit to developing nuclear technology for the purposes of desalination and Iran recommences its nuclear armament, it could be likely that the Saudis counteract Iran by developing nuclear weapons from the technology they would have established.
The Saudi-China desalination project appears to be mainly peaceful, with legitimate economic concerns at the forefront of nuclear development considerations. It is unlikely, however, that Saudi Arabia has not considered the benefits of nuclear security as a part of its calculations to undertake nuclear development with China.