2007 April 15 Sunday
Saudis Lead Gulf Sunni Nuclear Push

George W. Bush's good buddies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have decided that they have to keep up with the Iranians on the nuclear front. The Saudis and their allies claim they are pursuing only peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Two years ago, the leaders of Saudi Arabia told international atomic regulators that they could foresee no need for the kingdom to develop nuclear power. Today, they are scrambling to hire atomic contractors, buy nuclear hardware and build support for a regional system of reactors.

So, too, Turkey is preparing for its first atomic plant. And Egypt has announced plans to build one on its Mediterranean coast. In all, roughly a dozen states in the region have recently turned to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for help in starting their own nuclear programs. While interest in nuclear energy is rising globally, it is unusually strong in the Middle East.

Well, look at it on the bright side: The nuclear electric generation plants will reduce oil consumption by Middle Eastern populations. So the oil will last longer for transportation uses around the world. On the other hand, look at it on the very bright side: some future event might some day powerfully warn the world on the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

While some Middle Eastern governments are thinking down the road to the point where their oil production starts to fall they are also afraid of Shia Iran's nuclear program.

But with Shiite Iran increasingly ascendant in the region, Sunni countries have alluded to other motives. Officials from 21 governments in and around the Middle East warned at a meeting of Arab leaders in March that Iran’s drive for atomic technology could result in the beginning of “a grave and destructive nuclear arms race in the region.”

In Washington, officials are seizing on such developments to build their case for stepping up pressure on Iran. President Bush has talked privately to experts on the Middle East about his fears of a “Sunni bomb,” and his concerns that countries in the Middle East may turn to the only nuclear-armed Sunni state, Pakistan, for help.

There's something funny and telling about this: The Arab press and clerics spends a lot of time proclaiming the thorough evilness of Israel. But Israel's nuclear weapons have not been enough to push the Arabs to develop their own nuclear weapons in defense. Nor have the Arabs really sought nukes in order to wipe out Israel. Saddam Hussein pursued nukes in a serious way up to the point of the first Gulf war. I suspect he did so more to pursue his territorial ambitions and to protect himself from Iran than to strike at Israel.

But look at the very different Arab reaction to Shia and non-Arab Iran getting near to making nukes. In response only now's the time for Arab Muslim countries to make nuclear power plants and get closer to making nuclear weapons.

I think nuclear proliferation is inevitable.

The Saudis aren't go-it-alone unilateralists. Oh no. They are into diplomacy, consensus, and multi-lateral alliances of friends. A coalition of the willing, if you will. They've organised a group of countries that have almost half the world's oil and that group is pursuing the benefits of nuclear power.

Diplomats and analysts say Saudi Arabia leads the drive for nuclear power within the Gulf Cooperation Council, based in Riyadh. In addition to the Saudis, the council includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — Washington’s closest Arab allies. Its member states hug the western shores of the Persian Gulf and control about 45 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

Late last year, the council announced that it would embark on a nuclear energy program. Its officials have said they want to get it under way by 2009.

Read the whole article. The 21st century promises to be very interesting.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 April 15 01:24 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

razib said at April 15, 2007 9:43 PM:

The newly interested states include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and the seven sheikdoms of the United Arab Emirates — Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Al Fujayrah, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn.

to me, this seems like a joke. of these nations listed only turkey seems to have the ability to generate its own indigenous nuclear weapons. seriously, the saudis can't wipe their own a**es without foreign workers. the "saudi" nuclear program will probably be wholly manned & operated by pakistani expats. these are a people who can barely fly their own jets for god's sake. as for the UAE, dubai is a city run by non-arabs (including a large persian population!) for the arab minority. adding yemen, oman & syria to the list seems like padding the list to make it sound ominous (yemen is a poor basketcase, qatar is run i large part by foregin labor, and syria is a lightweight in population which has the problem that it is minority run state). seriously, you know that mongolia would like nuclear weapons? sri lanka too. i won't tell you my sources....

Randall Parker said at April 15, 2007 10:29 PM:


But the Gulf Arab states (and not just Saudi Arabia) can afford to buy nuclear weapons developers. First they buy nuclear reactors. Then they can work up to buying everything else they need. Sure, they are mostly dumb. But they are mostly dumb people with a lot of oil money and the demonstrated ability to buy the needed skills.

The global marketplace provides many sources of needed tech.

Kenelm Digby said at April 16, 2007 4:58 AM:

Do you really think that an exchange of nuclear weapons is more 'likely than not' sometime in the 21st century?, and that exchange will involve minor powers as distinct from the 'big-boys' of America, China, Russia, France and Britain?
What outcomes do you envision in terms of casaulties, destruction and irradiation?
Is this outcome 'inevitable'?
Is it possible to get ot of this bind?

History only teaches us that when nation feels threatend enough it shows no restraint or mercy, historically, every advance in weaponry from gunpowder to aircraft onwarsd has been exploited to the maximum effect.

razib said at April 16, 2007 5:50 PM:

The global marketplace provides many sources of needed tech.

randall, yeah, you make a good point. but in this case, think about what you are saying: those comic book stories about mad gazillionaires should keep you up at night, because globalization is producing some super rich people. i mean, just crank up this guy by an order of magnitude or so and we're screwed.

Randall Parker said at April 16, 2007 7:33 PM:


I expect the cost of buying nuclear bombs to decline every year. How many people or governments will decide they want to own some? Heck if I know.

But we can expect that possession of nukes by some countries will cause other countries to covet them as well.

Kurt9 said at April 17, 2007 1:19 PM:


Razib has a point. Even if the cost goes down, you still need highly trained people to not only manufacture the nukes, but to maintain them as well (yes, they need maintanence). Also, thermonuclear bombs (which is everything greater than a 20-30 kiloton yield) require Tritium, which has a 12 year half-life. I believe both the U.S. and Russian Tritium production facilities are either not running or have mechanical problems. Tritium plants are expensive. Without a resupply of Tritium, you have automatic disarmament of thermonuclear weapons of a 12 year cycle.

The uranium enrichment facilies are also very expensive and require knowledgable people to operate. The plutonium route is very messy, resulting in all kinds of radioactive junk that is easy to detect.

I do not expect nuclear weapons technology to decline significantly in the coming years. This is not like semiconductors or biotech with Moore's Law like progression.

I do expect nuclear proliferation. But it will occur over a longer period of time than many people expect, due to the inherent complexity and expense of the technology.

Randall Parker said at April 17, 2007 7:24 PM:


We are headed toward the era of "lights out" factories where no human sets foot on the factory floor on typical days. Why won't robotics gradually shrink the number of people needed to build nuclear bombs?

I picture a future day when lathes, mills, welding machines, and other devices can get programmed by open source instructions available for many device designs on the net. Want an electric motor? Download a free program that builds you one. Want a centrifuge? Higher a poor Pakistani engineering grad student or two to paste together some existing programs to build you one operating your equipment.

Then we reach the era of nano-assemblers that can build just about anything.

Remember, there are over 1 billion Muslims. Enough are smart to provide an available pool of engineers. Throw in highly automated and easily programmable robots and a big collection of open source instruction sets for building devices and I figure in 20 or 30 years the obstacles in the way of would-be bomb builders will be much lower.

Kurt9 said at April 18, 2007 10:32 AM:


I am well aware of the trend towards lights-out manufacturing (I have designed control systems for such fabs). This just eliminates the need for factory workers on the factory floor. It does not eliminate the high capital costs of the equipment that goes into such factories, nor the need for high skill technicians to maintain all of that equipment. I speak from the perspective of semiconductor fabs. However, in terms of capital costs and the need for skilled technicians, an enrichment facility and nuke bomb factory is comparible to a 300mm wafer fab. The engineering that goes into a nuclear isotopic separation centrifuge is comparable to that which goes into the CVD, PVD, and etching process equipment that make up a semiconductor fab. The amount of technical support (and therefor, skilled technicians and engineers) required to support a nuclear fuel and bomb making factory is also comparable to a semiconductor fab. These people have to come from somewhere.

Also, unlike manufacturing electronic devices (which will ultimately be made using self-assembly chemistry aka nanotechnology), uranium enrichment involves isotopic separation, which cannot be done by chemical means (which is what nanotechnology really is). So, even if Drexlerian nanotech is developed, this will not make nuclear industrial processes significantly easier (and cheaper) in the manner that you expect. Also, all of the isotopic separation techniques are very low yield, which is one of the reasons why nuclear fuels technology is inherently expensive.

Nuclear technology is not about to become a table-top technology anytime soon.

I have to side with Razib in this argument.

Randall Parker said at April 18, 2007 9:17 PM:


Wafer fabs are cutting edge. New generations of product designs keep coming along. Of course they'll need technicians to maintain them. But in other industries making other types of products where the actual manufactured product does not change much the emphasis is on technological improvements that reduce labor inputs and that reduce maintenance intervals.

High capital costs: The ranks of the billionaires keep getting bigger and bigger.

Again, automation will lower costs even as the ranks of those who can afford the capital will grow. Plus, the ease of operation of the capital will increase. Self-diagnosis of equipment is an area I've worked in. Self-calibration, self-diagnosis, automated repairs. Expect to see much more of all these things.

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