November 7, 2023 | Policy Brief

Saudi Arabia Buys Time for Normalization Talks With America and Israel 

Saudi Arabia has extended a deadline for bids from foreign companies to build the kingdom’s first nuclear power reactors. The extension could allow Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Washington to finalize normalization and mutual defense pacts that the three were negotiating before the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.  

Saudi Arabia wants to build a nuclear program to produce electricity for exportation across the region as the world shifts away from fossil fuels, one of Riyadh’s main exports. The trilateral negotiations envisioned Saudi recognition of Israel in exchange for a U.S. defense cooperation agreement. Riyadh also requested that Washington provide a uranium enrichment plant on Saudi territory, but it is unclear whether the Biden administration acquiesced to that request.  

The Hamas attack delayed, but may not have ended, the negotiations. Last week, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the White House came away from recent discussions with Riyadh believing “the Saudis are still committed” to reaching an accord.  

The kingdom has begun the process of soliciting bids to construct two nuclear reactors, with a plan to expand to 16 reactors at a cost of  between $80 billion and $100 billion. China’s National Nuclear Corporation, Russia’s Rosatom Corporation, South Korea’s Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), and France’s EDF Group are reportedly ready to bid on the project.  

Riyadh has decided to delay the deadline from October 31 to December 31, and additional extensions could follow. This could provide time to conclude a deal with Washington that would allow the U.S. company Westinghouse to submit a bid or join KEPCO’s bid. The complicating factor is whether Riyadh and Washington can conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, also known as a “123 agreement,” as required by the U.S. Atomic Energy Act. 

Saudi Arabia wants to develop the entire uranium fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment. While enrichment would allow the kingdom to produce nuclear reactor fuel, Riyadh could misuse it to produce material for nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Biden administration is reportedly considering the Saudi request. 

Saudi Arabia could have difficulty meeting Washington’s strict legal nonproliferation criteria for a nuclear cooperation agreement, which Congress must review. The kingdom does not have strong international safeguards arrangements in place, and the Saudi crown prince has said publicly — on more than one occasion — that Riyadh will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. Therefore, the Biden administration cannot tell Congress with certainty that a U.S.-provided enrichment facility would be free from risk of takeover or misappropriation.  

U.S. provision of such a facility would also upend 70 years of American nonproliferation policy against providing uranium enrichment technology on foreign soil, even under strict “black box” conditions. It would likely destroy the “gold standard” of nonproliferation that Washington has attempted to propagate in the Middle East to limit the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities. The United Arab Emirates, which committed in 2009 not to acquire enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technology, may ask to renegotiate its commitment. Turkey, Egypt, and other states would likely seek to acquire enrichment or reprocessing capability. South Korea may ask for the same capabilities, triggering another global flashpoint vis-à-vis North Korea. 

The Biden administration should support the successful conclusion of defense and normalization pacts with Saudi Arabia and Israel — but skip the enrichment. Riyadh can meet its goal of becoming a nuclear-energy exporter without it. 

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the program and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. For more analysis from the authors and FDD please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea and Anthony on X @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. 


Arab Politics Israel Nonproliferation