In but the latest after an insane month of news featuring the kingdom since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the AP reports Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman laid the ceremonial foundation stone for Saudi Arabia's first nuclear research reactor on Monday.
The site is the first of 16 planned reactor sites to be built over the next two decades, and is raising fears that it could mark the start of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, especially given the timing as November 5th was the very day severe U.S. sanctions on Iran targeting the energy industry took effect, precisely over the White House accusation that it is not serious about de-nuclearization.
The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that the reactor is part of seven major projects launched as he visited Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. The kingdom is seeking to diversify the way it meets its energy needs, currently driven by oil and gas. The SPA report did not indicate when the research reactor would go online, but did mention it is the start of a 20-year, $80bn project to build 16 nuclear reactors.
According to a joint AP/Times of Israel report:
Prince Mohammed said in March that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Riyadh will do so too. In an interview with CBS television, he likened regional rival Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler, saying he “wants to create his own project in the Middle East.”
Riyadh held deep reservations over the 2015 accord aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and hailed US President Donald Trump’s announcement in May that the United States was withdrawing from the deal.
During that CBS/60 Minutes interview MbS said: "Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to own a nuclear bomb. But without a doubt, if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
No doubt the symbolism of MbS laying the foundation stone for the kingdom's first nuclear reactor on the very day aggressive sanctions on Iran snapped back will not be lost of Tehran.
Given the timing it appears the Saudis were positively celebrating the sanctions and even provoking Iran. All of this means that the nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia is officially on, even as much of the Middle East and the world is spotlighting the crimes of both. However, it will likely come slowly at first and under the guise of "peaceful" energy development of a "research" nature.
And guess which Western country is inking deals with the Saudis for nuclear reactors? We don't expect the global outrage over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to ultimately halt such deals, even if they slow for the time being. The AP reports:
Trump reportedly refused a March request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a commitment to halting an emerging deal to sell further nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, telling the prime minister that if the US did not supply the reactors, then the Russians or Chinese would.
Netanyahu and his team reportedly requested that, if the Americans insist on going ahead with building reactors, Saudi Arabia be prevented from enriching uranium by itself.
Currently, the only Arab Gulf country to have previously launched a nuclear power project is the United Arab Emirates, which is constructing four South Korea-designed reactors.
Meanwhile Iran has long claimed its own nuclear initiatives were purely to pursue energy needs much like the Gulf countries are seeking to diversify away from sole reliance on oil and gas. While the West has always refused to take Tehran's word for it, it will be interesting to see if there's any eventual shift in opinion concerning the Saudis' pursuit of large reactors given the current scrutiny over the kingdom's dismal human rights record in the wake of the Khashoggi affair.