Saudi Arabia takes first steps towards nuclear ambitions

Riyadh’s goals include building two nuclear reactors for energy production, the first of which is expected to be completed in late 2019.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Big plans. Solar dishes are seen behind the entrance sign of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. 		     (Reuters)
Big plans. Solar dishes are seen behind the entrance sign of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. (Reuters)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia took first steps towards joining the nuclear energy club when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz laid the foundation stone for seven new strategic projects, including a nuclear research reactor.

The projects will be in “renewable and atomic energy, water desalination, generic medicine and aircraft industry at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology,” an official statement said.

Al Arabiya TV reported that the projects included the first nuclear research reactor and a centre to make Saudi Arabia the largest aircraft manufacturer in the Middle East.

It said the nuclear research reactor in Saudi Arabia would be designed to “develop the nuclear industry and its specialised research,” Al Arabiya said.

A government statement said Riyadh’s goals included building two nuclear reactors for energy production, the first of which is expected to be completed in late 2019. There are long-term targets of as many as 16 in the next 25 years at a cost of $80 billion.

The projects are in line with Saudi Vision 2030, an economic reform plan to modernise the Saudi economy and diversify it from the oil and gas sector.

However, security and political considerations are likely factors regarding Riyadh’s nuclear energy ambitions. In an interview last March, Crown Prince Mohammed said if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would have to do the same.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Crown Prince Mohammed told CBS News’s “60 Minutes.”

Saudi Arabia denounced the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration and hailed current US President Donald Trump after he withdrew from the deal, which had erased international economic sanctions on Iran. The United States has since unilaterally reinstated many of those sanctions.

Saudi Arabia has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Russia and South Korea. Japan’s SoftBank is planning on developing a solar power plant in the kingdom estimated to cost $1.2 billion, Bloomberg News reported.

Bloomberg News said the solar plant in North Riyadh would generate 1.8 gigawatts of power. SoftBank, which has the right to alter the size of the facility or not proceed with it at all, has started preliminary talks with financial institutions and developers to assess interest in the project.

This venture would be a pilot project for wider Saudi plans regarding solar power, Bloomberg News reported.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is the largest investor in SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund, which includes investments in up to 60 firms under the SoftBank’s umbrella. Most of those companies have a presence in the kingdom.

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