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A Quest for the Arabian Atom?

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

A quest for the Arabian atom? Geopolitics, security, and national identity in the nuclear energy programs in the Middle East

Authors: Mohamad Al Saidi and Mehran Haghirian

Energy Research & Social Science (Elsevier)

Volume 69, November 2020


Nuclear energy programs are currently under formalization in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the first power plants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) due to be operational in 2020, and Saudi Arabia's program under development. A political-economic narrative stresses potential benefits such as the diversification of energy sources, the centralization/maintenance of power in the energy supply sector, and the preservation of carbon fuel reserves for export purposes. However, a narrow justification renders the analysis of the nuclear push incomplete, as it is not specific to the nuclear option: i.e., the benefits mentioned apply to other types of alternative energies such as the (relatively) clean options of solar and wind. Economic or domestic considerations might actually be less dominant than geopolitical ones in GCC countries. By analyzing nuclear legacies in the region, this paper highlights the geopolitical considerations behind the nuclear programs of GCC countries, in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The rise of the nuclear energy option in the GCC region coincides with the resurrection of the nuclear program in Iran in the early 2000s. It is linked, in terms of evolution and discourse, to geopolitical rivalry and posturing as well as to the rising tensions in the region, at least in the case of the nuclear ambitions of Saudi Arabia. Despite the political and environmental vulnerabilities of the region, as well as the region-specific risks associated with nuclear power production, nuclear energy seems to be a stable choice in the energy mix policies of these countries.

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