Saudi Arabia Counters U.S. Hesitation on Nuclear Power Program with Chinese Bid

Saudi Arabia Counters U.S. Hesitation on Nuclear Power Program with Chinese Bid
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The Lede: According to reports from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times over the weekend, Saudi Arabia is considering bids from China, France, and Russia to build a nuclear power plant as it seeks alternatives to U.S. cooperation. This comes as the U.S. has been trying to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Washington has been hesitant to provide assistance, but Riyadh has made its civilian nuclear power program a key demand for the potential normalization deal. Saudi Arabia relies heavily on the U.S. for security support.

What We Know:

  • The state-owned China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) has recently submitted a bid to build a nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia. The plant would be located in the country’s eastern province near the border with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  • The U.S. insists on restrictions to cooperating with Saudi Arabia’s plans for a civilian nuclear program. Earlier in the week, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan announced that the Biden administration would consult the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia to determine any assistance. Israel's energy minister has openly opposed the development of a Saudi civilian nuclear program as part of U.S. efforts to normalize Israeli-Saudi relations.
  • Saudi officials have said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was prepared to move ahead with the Chinese deal if talks with the U.S. fall through.

The Background: France’s state-owned EDF and Kepco of South Korea were previously shortlisted along with a Chinese offer in 2018 for such a program. The U.S. had previously stipulated that it would provide assistance under the condition that Saudi Arabia does not engage in the enrichment of uranium or the reprocessing of plutonium made in reactors. The two processes are key steps to making nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has expressed that it would only seek to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran acquired them. However, Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently restored diplomatic relations in a move brokered by China. China is the world’s largest importer of oil and Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter.

Likely Outcomes:

  • Saudi Arabia would prefer to work with the U.S. on its nuclear power program, but if the two sides do not come to an agreement on the conditions to restrict its capabilities, Riyadh may decide to move forward with an alternative bid. As is the case with many other Gulf states, China and Saudi Arabia have been growing their bilateral ties in the past year, especially in the areas of energy and finance. Inking a deal to cooperate on a nuclear power plant would be a huge win for China and a loss for U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.
  • The U.S. will likely want to show flexibility in its previous conditions for a Saudi nuclear program. This is especially relevant as Israel may not be as adamant on the matter. It may not present a significant impediment to Washington’s desire to broker normalized relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has also been in talks to help bolster Saudi infrastructure and lean into more cooperation as a way to counter China’s influence on the Kingdom and on the region in general. That effort may prove too little too late, especially if yet another win goes in favor of China and in an area as sensitive and consequential as a nuclear power program.


"Egypt and the Emirates operate nuclear research centres and these are not dangerous. Dozens of countries operate projects with civilian nuclear cores and with nuclear endeavours for energy. This is not something that endangers them nor their neighbors." – Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli national security adviser

Good Reads:

Saudi Arabia Eyes Chinese Bid for Nuclear Plant (WSJ)

Saudi Arabia weighs nuclear power offers from China and France in bid to sway US (FT)

Saudi Arabia considers Chinese bid for nuclear plant, Wall Street Journal reports (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia mulls nuclear power offers from China and Russia in bid to sway US (Middle East Eye)