Nuclear energy on a silver plate for Iran’s neighbours

Friday, 7. May 2010     0 comment(s)
Mari Luomi
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
This week the world’s attention has been on the review of the UN nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that is being discussed in a conference in New York. Iran’s presence has been in the limelight, as a speech by President Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to attend the UN meeting, prompted a walkout of American, British and French delegates.

As Al-Jazeera English aptly noted, the bilateral blame game between the US and Iran and their mutual obsession with one another could steal a disproportional amount of attention in even this conference, which is supposed to deal with the issue of non-proliferation at a global level.

The Western debate on the Iran issue has heavily focused on the military side of the coin – and certainly for a reason. It is, however, particularly striking to observe the almost casual view on nuclear developments in Iran’s neighbourhood. In fact, the West - the US and France at the forefront - have turned out to be eager to offer nuclear energy to Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbours.

The magic words seem to be ‘US ally’ and ‘renouncing domestic enrichment of uranium’. Also, the candidate must present a credible case for its need of additional sources of energy – and a thick wallet. During the past years, the UAE, one of the world’s top oil exporters, has seen an unprecedented rise in domestic energy demand, while at the same time being tight on natural gas - the main source of electricity in the region. These attributes have brought the West’s approval to the United Arab Emirates’ nuclear ambitions.

Abu Dhabi, the leading emirate of this seven-emirate federation is currently pushing full speed ahead with the nuclear programme. From announcing its intent to explore the use of peaceful nuclear energy in a white paper in April 2008 Abu Dhabi has already passed a nuclear law, set up a body for developing the programme (The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, ENEC), an independent federal regulatory authority, and chosen a South Korean consortium to build four nuclear reactors for a total price of US$20bn. The extremely ambitious aim is to open the first reactor in 2017. ENEC has already proposed the site for the plants, Braka, located on Abu Dhabi’s coast close to the border with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, too, has been mulling nuclear energy for some years now. In April this year it took a visible step towards an official statement to go nuclear by announcing that it would establish an alternative energy research centre called The King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy in Riyadh. One of the centre’s tasks will be to draft a national policy for nuclear use.

Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, does not have enough gas for domestic use and will potentially face an imminent energy crisis if electricity demand keeps growing. Energy efficiency is on the table, but the ultimate cause, namely the high energy and water subsidies, are not – at least to a degree that would make a considerable impact on per capita consumption. Also, having to resort to oil domestically carries an important opportunity cost. The Saudi oil company ARAMCO’s CEO recently cautioned that if the state did not address the inefficient use of energy, it could lose as much as 3 million barrels of oil per day by 2028. Saudi Arabia’s current production is 8.5m b/d.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia therefore have a strong case, like many other states in the region, including Jordan and Egypt (although these two for slightly different reasons). Kuwait too seems interested. In April, Kuwait and France signed an agreement on cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. MoUs have been signed between several other Arab states and key suppliers.

Nuclear is a becoming a lucrative global business and the Western states do not want to lose on the coming deals in the Middle East like they did in the case of the UAE. The threat of proliferation in the Arab world therefore might be willingly downplayed. Safety considerations are a further issue that should be kept in mind.

The UAE has managed to convince the world of its transparency and top-class standards. The cases of the UAE and Iran have shown that the US is not willing to compromise with Middle Eastern Muslim states that do not commit to transparency. However, when it comes to safety, one hopes that the providers of technology are equally careful not to lower the bar as new, tempting business opportunities in this volatile region arise. And most importantly, amidst the big deals, Western countries should not forget the importance of engaging Arab countries in the development of solar and other renewable energy technologies. Because the future of the region should not lie in the atom but in the sun.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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