Saudi Arabia last week announced the establishment of a renewable energy complex, confirming the country’s interest in nuclear energy.

The King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy, set to be established in Riyadh, will, according to a royal decree, be tasked with the research and application of nuclear technology and oversee all aspects of a nuclear power industry, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

In an effort to diversify the country’s oil-based energy industry, Saudi Arabia has been experimenting with alternative energies such as solar power. Nuclear power is a growing focus area.

Analysts say, however, that politics may have played a major role in the Saudi decision to focus on nuclear technology, as the kingdom’s leaders feel increasingly threatened by the specter of a nuclear Iran.

Dr. Theodore Karasik, director for Research and Development with the Dubai-based Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said the plan to build the new complex is motivated by both economics and political factors.

“You have to take it in the context of the other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] or Arab states in terms of their transparency,” Karasik said. “Many of them are trying to move toward nuclear energy capabilities in order to be transparent, as opposed to the Iranians, who are not.” 

Sunni countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, are concerned about Shi’ite Iran becoming a nuclear power and in recent years have started developing nuclear programs of their own. While such programs are ostensibly all civilian, analysts say the underlying message to Iran is that these countries have both the know-how and the capability to respond to an atomic threat.

“It’s a trend in the region, and they need it,” Karasik said. “They are looking ahead 40 or 50 years from now and many of these countries need to develop it now to plan for the future.”

The Saudi announcement did not specify time frames and Karasik said ambitious projects of these kinds could take 15-20 years before becoming a reality.

Nuclear power is also a way to save crude oil for export while still providing energy for local consumption. The kingdom has around 20 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and is the largest exporter of petroleum.

Saudi Arabia has a petroleum sector that accounts for roughly 80% of its budget revenues, 45% of its GDP and 90% of its export earnings.

The new energy complex will fund university research labs and help the private sector develop nuclear applications for agriculture, health care, water desalination and power.

The new institution will also be tasked with drafting a national policy on nuclear energy development, supervising the commercial use of nuclear power and handling radioactive waste.

Saudi Arabia’s population growth and energy subsidies have increased domestic consumption of oil and gas, fueling concerns about the future of its energy economy.

“The peaceful use of nuclear energy will make it possible for the state to explore the needs of the society and plan accordingly,” the decree said. “It will increase development and give the kingdom the knowledge and ability in accord with international agreements and treaties that regulate the peaceful use of energy.”

Meena Janardhan, a Dubai-based fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute, said the move is also viewed favorably from an environmental standpoint.

“It’s in trend with the region, looking at resources other than fossil fuels,” she said. “Over the last few years, interest in this has grown, and it’s good that countries based on fossil fuels and oil are looking at alternative energy sources.


“Renewable energy sources are being stressed all over the world, and Saudi Arabia also has a fast growing power demand,” Janardhan said, adding that the current project will help the kingdom deal with its water crisis by contributing to desalination efforts.

The complex will be headed by physicist and former minister of commerce and industry Hashim Abdallah Yamani.

King Abdullah and several other high-ranking officials will be on the board of the new institution, which will represent the kingdom at international bodies regulating nuclear technology, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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