In light of Iran's rapidly accelerating nuclear program, more than a dozen states in the Middle East have also announced their intention to develop nuclear energy programs. The trend has caused much anxiety among members of the global community. It has sparked concerns about the spread of nuclear technology that could contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East, intensify arms races in the region among all classes of weapons, and become a target for terrorist activity. On this site, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, wrote about the United Arab Emirates (UAE): "After they have developed nuclear technologies, trained nuclear scientists and engineers, and plugged into global nuclear markets, will they go one step further and build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants that could be used to make fuel -- or bombs?"
But the global economic crisis has disrupted the calculus of nuclear power. An alternative to oil that once appeared to be a clear cost-saver has now come to look very unattractive. And countries are responding by shuttering their programs. Currently, there is not a single operational nuclear power plant in all of the Middle East, and the only one scheduled to go live in the near future will be the Bushehr plant in Iran next year. The scaling back of the Middle Eastern nuclear industry seems rational and likely within the context of global trends -- and this fact raises serious questions about Iran's motivations as it ramps up its own nuclear program.
A few of these programs, such as the one in the UAE, originally progressed at a swift pace. The UAE signed memoranda of understanding with at least five potential supplier states, signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, established a federal nuclear regulatory authority, developed a nuclear material licensing and control system, passed relevant domestic legislation to govern efforts, and joined important international treaties, all within a span of three years. (The average estimated time for a new nuclear energy program to become operational is generally 15 years.)
The main justifications given for this planned growth in nuclear power were long-term security concerns and the need to develop diversified and safe energy resources. The UAE is not alone in having legitimate concerns about matching its energy demand with alternative supplies. Saudi Arabia, for example, has one of the highest rates of electricity consumption in the world (ranked 19th among nations), and its energy needs are growing faster than any other Middle Eastern state's. To meet rising demand by 2030, the country will require additional generating capacity of an estimated 35 to 66 gigawatts.
There is also an emerging profit motivation. If demographic trends and existing policies remain unchanged, world energy demand is projected to grow by more than 50 percent by 2030 -- a demand the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations, especially Saudi Arabia, will be increasingly central in filling. The International Energy Agency projects OPEC Middle East oil production will increase from 25 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2008 to 38 mbd by 2030, a 65 percent increase. By 2030, OPEC will provide more than half the world's total oil supply. For oil-producing nations, burning their own crude oil to generate electricity results in a considerable loss of potential export revenues. By building nuclear power plants to fill domestic needs, Middle East oil producers plan to free up their oil and gas production for export to a hungry global market.
Another potential motivation (feverishly denied by officials across the Middle East) is a fear of Iran's nuclear ambitions. The timing of these countries' interest in going nuclear suggests an unease over Iran's expanding program. Although a nuclear energy program will not give Middle Eastern states a nuclear weapons capability, it will allow them to maintain a sense of technical parity with Iran and provide them with the infrastructure to jumpstart a weapons program if they so elected.
Despite all this initial enthusiasm, however, these nascent nuclear energy programs still haven't fully materialized. Several of them have been abandoned altogether, and others have slowed to a crawl.