Despite qualms in Washington, Saudi officials have pressed the United States to help them develop nuclear power. But they are also exploring other options, including China.
For years, Saudi Arabia has pressed the United States to help it develop a nuclear energy program, as Saudi leaders look beyond oil to power their country.
But talks about a nuclear partnership have dragged on, largely because the Saudi government refuses to agree to conditions that are intended to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons or helping other nations do so, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.
Frustrated Saudi officials are now exploring options to work with other countries, including China, Russia or a U.S. ally.
At the same time, they are renewing a push with the United States — their preferred partner — by offering to try to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for U.S. cooperation on building nuclear reactors and other guarantees.
New details of the Saudi efforts provide a window into the recent difficulties and distrust between Washington and Riyadh, and into the foreign policy that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pursuing: greater independence from the United States as he expands partnerships with other world powers, including China.
Some analysts say that is part of a strategy to pressure Washington to work with the Saudi government on its own terms; others say the prince sees an emerging multipolar world in which the United States plays a less dominant role. Saudi Arabia also agreed in March to a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran after China acted as broker.
The Saudi nuclear efforts raise a specter of proliferation that makes some American officials nervous: Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has said that Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Any civilian nuclear program has dual-use elements that could aid a country in producing weapons-grade material.
But Prince Mohammed also believes he has the right to exploit the kingdom’s potentially vast uranium deposits for both energy and export. That would create a new revenue source for the kingdom and could give Saudi Arabia greater geopolitical heft. China is already working with Saudi Arabia on uranium prospecting.
Speaking at a conference in Riyadh in January, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister, said that plans to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel — including for export — were even “more important” than proposed reactors in Saudi Arabia. The energy ministry said in a statement that the bidding process for two reactors involves “several technology vendors” and that it expected to receive proposals soon.
The enrichment ambitions make some U.S. officials nervous, even if Saudi Arabia’s turn toward nuclear power would align with the Biden administration’s support of low-carbon energy.
“They have a legitimate case to make about the need to use their uranium to produce energy so that they can sell what’s left of their oil before that runs out or the market collapses or something else happens,” said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The United States requires countries to meet high standards of nonproliferation before cooperating on a nuclear program, including in some cases banning uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing in their territory. The details are enshrined in a 123 agreement, which the State Department negotiates with advice from the Energy Department. The pact must be reviewed by Congress, which can block it.
Saudi officials have refused to commit to the restrictions, which would undermine their goal of enriching and selling uranium. The United Arab Emirates, a Saudi neighbor, and Taiwan have agreements with the United States that include bans on enrichment and fuel reprocessing.
Even if Saudi officials express willingness to sign a 123 agreement, any deal would face significant political obstacles in Washington. President Biden distrusts Prince Mohammed and denounced Saudi Arabia during a blowup over Riyadh’s oil policy in October. And many Democratic lawmakers and some Republican ones say Saudi Arabia has been a destabilizing force.
“Absolutely not,” Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, said in an interview when asked whether he would support an agreement allowing Saudi Arabia to use U.S. nuclear technology. “It’s a nonstarter.”
The White House and State Department declined requests for official interviews, and the department would reply only to written questions. U.S. and Saudi officials who spoke did so on the condition of anonymity.
The State Department said the United States had been negotiating an agreement with Saudi Arabia since 2012 but declined to give details. Trump administration officials and advisers pushed the nuclear effort, often secretly — an initiative to which some senators objected, citing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the potential for development of nuclear arms.
The State Department said the Biden administration “is committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s clean energy transition, including its efforts to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program.” The department added that the United States requires “the highest international standards” on “safety, nonproliferation, export controls and physical security.”
The Saudi energy ministry said the kingdom’s “peaceful nuclear power program” would be based on “transparency and international best practices,” and that it would work closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and countries that have signed general agreements with the Saudis to help with nuclear energy. Those include China, Russia, South Korea and France.
Some Saudi officials believe the United States has been an unreliable partner that has swung wildly on policy and has been unable to deliver on security and economic cooperation.
A Blast of Diplomacy
American and Saudi champions of nuclear power in the kingdom saw an opening when President Donald J. Trump sought to build ties with Prince Mohammed.
The efforts on energy began early in the administration, as a consortium of American companies, including Westinghouse, expressed interest in Saudi Arabia’s proposed nuclear reactor project. Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, and Thomas J. Barrack Jr., an investor who was the chairman of Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee, pushed for U.S. involvement.
Those initial efforts stalled after the two men became embroiled in separate legal issues over other dealings with foreign officials.
Democratic lawmakers opened an inquiry into the nuclear efforts and issued a report saying White House lawyers had questioned the legality and ethics of the proposed ventures. That did not deter the administration. Rick Perry, the energy secretary, took the lead.
Mr. Perry issued seven authorizations to American companies allowing them to transfer unclassified U.S. nuclear technology — but not physical equipment — to Saudi Arabia.
However, American officials said they failed to produce any 123 agreement that they thought would be approved by Congress.
In September 2020, Mr. Trump held a White House ceremony in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel in a pact called the Abraham Accords. Saudi leaders told the White House that nuclear cooperation was a condition for their country joining, a former senior administration official said. But Mr. Trump left office before an agreement could be reached.
“Nuclear to me is where you want to be going,” Mr. Perry said in an interview at an investment conference in Riyadh. But in baseball terms, he said, talks under Mr. Trump only ever got to “the second” inning.
He paused, then added, “The top of the second.”
Flirting With China
As the Biden administration insists on certain safeguards, Saudi officials have continued looking at non-American companies.
An attractive one is the Korea Electric Power Corporation, or Kepco, based in South Korea. A company spokesperson said Kepco is talking to U.S. officials about the nuclear program and is interested in working with Saudi Arabia but declined to go into details, citing a confidentiality agreement with the Saudis.
But the South Korean government, a U.S. ally, would likely bar the company from the project if Saudi Arabia does not enter into a strict nonproliferation agreement with a government or the International Atomic Energy Agency. The company said it hoped “the conditions for participation in the project will be created.” And a complicating factor is a legal dispute between Kepco and Westinghouse over reactor designs.
French bidders would be in a similar situation. And working with Moscow would be unappealing for Riyadh because of American- and European-led sanctions imposed on Russia.
Although Saudi officials think of American nuclear technology as the best option, they are open to considering Chinese technology. Saudi Arabia and China have forged closer ties recently, including over oil and military cooperation.
China has built up Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile arsenal over decades and sends military officers to work on the program, current and former U.S. officials said. And with Chinese technology, Saudi Arabia is now able to build its own missiles, they said. New satellite imagery showing bulldozer activity at previous missile sites indicates Saudi Arabia could be housing a new type of missile underground, said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
The missile program is separate from any nuclear energy effort, but it shows how closely China works with Saudi Arabia on highly technical and sensitive projects.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, visited Saudi Arabia in December after nearly three years of pandemic isolation. He and King Salman issued a statement in which they promised “to cooperate in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
While visiting Saudi Arabia in 2016, Mr. Xi oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding to help build a reactor.
Chinese nuclear companies have also offered to help explore and develop the country’s uranium resources. In 2017, the China National Nuclear Corporation and the Saudi Geological Survey signed a memorandum of understanding on surveying uranium deposits. In 2021, the Saudi Geological Survey issued a “certificate of appreciation” to the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology for help in exploring uranium and thorium resources.
In the past three or four years, China has helped Saudi Arabia develop six to eight uranium prospecting sites in the western half of the country, Mr. Lewis said. They have yet to build milling and processing plants, which are needed for uranium enrichment.
Edward Wong reported from Washington, Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Kate Kelly from Riyadh and Washington. Reporting was contributed by Chris Buckley in Taipei, Taiwan, and John Yoon and Jin Yu Young in Seoul.