The UAE succeeded in becoming a regional nuclear energy by switching on its Barakah nuclear-power plant this past weekend. It is now producing nuclear energy, and later this year, the Abu Dhabi-based plant will be hooked up to commercial operations, reports indicate.This is an important achievement for the UAE, the Gulf and the Arab world in general. When it comes to nuclear research and technology, the UAE is not the first country in the region to go down this road. Israel’s Dimona reactor was built with French support in the 1950s, and Iraq sought to construct a research center at Osirak after research in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s there were some 260 nuclear-power plants in 22 countries, but only a few in the Middle East.Iran eventually put together an impressive nuclear program. Syria also attempted to build a suspected reactor in the 2000s, and Libya began a clandestine project that it then abandoned. Algeria, other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have all expressed interest in nuclear power.Egypt, for instance, in March said the COVID-19 pandemic won’t halt construction of its Dabaa nuclear plant, which is based on a Russian model for four such plants in Egypt, according to Al-Monitor. Saudi Arabia is pushing to build its first reactor at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. It is thought to be nearly finished and is part of an ambitious plan to supply some 15% of the kingdom’s electricity by 2040, according to The Guardian.There are some 440 nuclear-power plants around the world today.In general, the Middle East’s programs have benefited from foreign support and been set back by regional rivalries and concerns over proliferation of nuclear weapons.For instance, France played a key role in assistance from the 1950s to 1980s. Algeria operated a research reactor with Chinese expertise that was started in 1992 with additional support from Argentina. North Korea, South Korea, Russia and others have played a key role throughout the region as well.In the UAE, the Korea Electric Power Corporation has played a key role. Qatar, a rival of the UAE, is jealous and instructed its Al Jazeera broadcast network to describe the UAE and Saudi programs as “controversial.” The UAE has heralded the launching of the plant as an example to the Arab world. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE, announced the success at Barakah over the weekend.The UAE project is just the beginning of a larger plant. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation completed the construction of Unit 1 in 2018 and finished Unit 2 last year. Fuel loading was completed in March, according to local media. Units 2 and 3 are almost complete. The reactor is projected to contribute a quarter of the country’s energy when complete. Hundreds off Emiratis have been trained in Korea as part of the program, according to The National, a Middle East English-language news service.The UAE’s success is an example of the country’s overall accomplishments in a variety of new initiatives. The UAE in mid-July launched a probe aimed at Mars, which was heralded as the Arab world’s first space mission.Critics may see these as vanity projects, a number of “Arab firsts” designed to show off. The Mars mission, for instance, was launched from Japan, and the spacecraft was in part developed in the US. However, the reality is that the UAE has made major strides in the last half decade in investing in space and nuclear-energy technologies. That it has done so with assistance and learning from existing experts is part of its overall goal to change the image of the Arab world, in particular of its friends, partners and allies in the region.The symbolic first steps, in nuclear energy and space, are part of a wider project that links the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and also Egypt and Jordan. A UAE-based company recently partnered with leading Israeli defense companies on addressing the COVID-19 crisis. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries also are world leaders in desalination.Taken together, the Barakah nuclear plant is a symbol – not only of peaceful nuclear energy, but of a successful project in the region. While historic Arab capitals, such as Baghdad and Damascus, languish in infrastructure decay, ruin, civil strife and Iranian encroachment, the alliance led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia has made impressive strides in the opposite direction.Whether it can transform this into increased regional influence to compete with Iran’s slow digestion of Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – and the Turkey-Qatar axis that seeks to export its brand of Muslim Brotherhood-infused extremism to places like Gaza, northern Syria and Libya – is the major question.