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Saudi Arabia Gets U.S. Nuclear Technology. For What?

By Marvin Zonis

President Trump has transferred nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia according to the Washington Post against the advice of almost all advisers and leading nuclear scientists. The Saudis claim they need the technology to build reactors to generate electricity so that they can stop using their oil for electricity generation. That would free up more oil for export. Oil revenues support the government – 90 percent of whose revenues comes from oil exports.

In fact, the Saudis have been using an increasing share of their oil production for the generation of electricity. Saudi demand for electricity has been growing rapidly for decades. In the first decade of this century, electricity production increased by 48 percent. It continues to surge.

But there is an alternative to nuclear reactors for the generation of power – natural gas. Saudi Arabia has the world’s sixth largest proven reserves of natural gas and has just begun the search for shale gas. (Shale gas, of course has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of natural gas and one of the world’s largest exporters of LNG.)

So why do the Saudis want nuclear technology? MBS, Mohammad Bin Salman, the son of King Salman, is the virtual ruler of the country and a great friend of both President Trump and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. MBS is worried about Iran.

The Saudi – Iranian competition for regional influence is intense. Worse, the Saudis remember that after the ouster of the shah and the victory of the Islamic forces in 1979, their own population erupted.

In November and December of 1979, armed civilians captured the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the holiest place in all of Islam. They claimed that the Mahdi (“the Redeemer of Islam”) had arrived in the form of their leader. When Saudi troops could not recapture the Mosque, the King called in special forces from Pakistan and France. It took more than two weeks to finally recapture the holy site with almost 300 dead and hundreds injured.

When the dust settled, King Khaled instituted the strict enforcement of Sharia law, empowered the religious police and turned the Kingdom more “fundamentalist” than it had ever been.

But as if that were not enough, in November of 1979, the Eastern Province erupted. The province contains the Saudi’s main oil export terminal and its largest refinery and the majority of its oil reserves. But it is also where the majority of the Kingdom’s Shia live.

Since the annexation of the province in 1913, the Shia have been the subject of state oppression. Virtually nothing was spent on the development of the province, the Shia were forbidden to celebrate their religious holidays, and Shia workers in the oil industry were always paid less than their Sunni counter parts.

Ayatollah Khomeini had all along criticized the Saudis on the grounds that hereditary kingship and Islam were incompatible. Stimulated by the victory of Khomeini, the Shia erupted. Again, the security forces were called out to restore order.

King Khaled responded to the Shia with more repression, which has largely continued to this day and by upping Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran across the entire Islamic world, including even Central Asia.

The rivalry with Iran is a special project of Muhammad Bin Salman, and of course of the U.S. President. It is reasonable to believe that the nuclear technology that the Saudis are acquiring from the U.S. is in the service of a project whose ultimate aim is the building of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons would provide the Saudis with a deterrent against direct Iranian threats, particularly if the Iranians were themselves to build nuclear weapons.

It is important to remember that the Saudis funded Pakistan for its developments of nukes, called “the Islamic bomb.” For years, it has been assumed that the Saudis would be able to call on the Pakistanis to transfer nuclear weapons to the Kingdom. But, of course, the Saudis acquiring nuclear weapons from the Pakistanis would still leave the Saudis with the need to maintain and service them.

Whether the Saudis have launched a long-term project to build weapons or “only” to maintain them after acquiring them from Pakistan is unknown.

What seems utterly clear is that the nuclear technology the United States is transferring now is not in the service of power plants but of nuclear weapons.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago. He can be reached at marvin.zonis@chicagobooth.edu.