October 10, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 467

The Middle East Ventures Into Nuclear Energy

October 10, 2008 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, North Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 467


Spurred by Iran's nuclear program and the risk it could pose to their security, a growing number of Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa are seeking to develop nuclear energy, ostensibly for peaceful purposes. With rich resources at the disposal of most of them, there is no shortage of suppliers willing to provide the knowhow, technical assistance, and equipment to fulfill the nuclear aspirations of these countries.

Rationales for Nuclear Power

The surge of interest in nuclear power is driven by a number of factors:

Political-Strategic Considerations

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute of for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, remarked: "One of the dangers of Iran going nuclear has always been that it might provoke others. So when you see that the development of nuclear power elsewhere in the region, it does raise concerns." [1] IISS highlighted the surge in interest in nuclear energy worldwide, which it likened to a "nuclear renaissance." Political factors also motivate the surge in interest in nuclear energy in the Middle East, "including competition with Iran and concern about its determined pursuit of technologies that appear designed to provide it with a nuclear weapons capability." [2] An editorial in the Iranian daily Kayhan, which represents the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, added fuel to the fire by declaring that Iran is a regional power which has entered "the nuclear club" and "space club." [3]

Not surprisingly, a growing number of Arab countries have decided to "join the rush to go nuclear." [4] So far, these countries include Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen. All these countries are Sunni and may have a strong motivation to acquire nuclear technology should they decide in the future to challenge Iranian nuclear hegemony

Nuclear Power Can Help Solve Water Shortage

The Middle East is the world's most water-stressed region in the world. The average availability of water is 1,200 cubic meters per person per year, projected to be halved by 2050 (this compares to a global average of 8,900 cubic meters per person per year today, and about 6,000 per person per year in 2050. According to studies by the World Bank and the United Nations, the Middle East has the highest rate of total renewable water resource withdrawal (about 75 percent). Distant second is South Asia, with 25 percent and the lowest is Latin American and the Caribbean, with about 2 percent.

About 60 percent of the region's water is transboundary water, i.e., water which flows across international borders, leaving a number of countries, including Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to be affected by decisions made by upstream riparian countries. The dependency ratio, i.e. the share of the total renewable water resources originating outside the countries, is as follows: Egypt 96.9%; Syria 80.3%; Iraq 53.3; and Jordan 22.7%. By contrast, Kuwait's dependency ratio is 100%, while Saudi Arabia's is 0.0%. According to a study by Palm Water LLC, the region plans to spend around $120 billion through 2017 on water investments to meet demand, especially from growth sectors such as construction and tourism. [5]

The potential for water conflict in the Middle East is real. Nuclear power might provide a cost-effective way of meeting growing public demand for water and, ironically, could reduce the potential for conflict.

Rising Demand for Power

With growing urbanization, the growth of industry and the expansion of the tourism sector in many countries in the Middle East, the consumption of power has been rising steadily. The table below provides data on electricity consumption per capita per year for the years 1980 and 2003. With the exception of Qatar, which was doing well already in 1980, and Iraq, which has gone through a period of sanctions and wars, all other countries in the sample show triple-digit growth in consumption per capita. There are no data for most recent years, although many countries, particularly members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), have gone through a period of breathtaking growth and it is safe to surmise that their consumption of electricity has grown correspondingly.

While many of the Arab countries, particularly the oil-producing countries, are moving, often cautiously, in the direction of acquiring the capacity to generate electricity by nuclear power, they are at the same time allocating enormous resources to increase their power production. Dr. Abdullah al-Amiri, chairman of the Emirates Energy Authority, declared that the GCC states will be investing $160 billion-$200 billion in the next 10-12 years to develop 14-20 energy projects to meet the increase in the Gulf's energy consumption. He said the consumption in the United Arab Emirates was growing at an average rate of 10% annually, while some emirates, like Dubai, will probably reach a growth rate of 19% in 2008, doubling the country's consumption in four to five years. [6] With the expansion of the tourism industry, in addition to growing urbanization, in Morocco and Tunisia power consumption will also register rapid growth. Dr. Al-Amiri did not indicate whether any of these power plants planned for construction will be nuclear.

Electricity Consumption per capita (kilowatt/hours) in Selected Countries




Increase (%)













Saudi Arabia
























Source: United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report 2005. New York, 2006, p. 303.

Nuclear Activities in the Middle East

With offers of help, particularly from France and, to a lesser extent, from the U.S, some Arab countries have taken steps to acquire nuclear technology in terms of energy diversification, electricity needs, and water desalination. In a very short while, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France signed no fewer than eight nuclear deals with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. [7]

Let's look at some individual efforts by these countries:

Morocco signed a protocol with the United States as early as September 2001, that was meant to lead the way for constructing a two-megawatt nuclear reactor in the country. The reactor was meant for scientific research and was to be built by General Atomics, which specializes in constructing reactors for this purpose. [8] According to its website, General Atomics "is designing and constructing… a fully-equipped research reactor facility. This facility will be commissioned as part of a Nuclear Energy Center, being constructed by the National Center for Nuclear Science, Energy and Technology (CNESTEN) of Morocco. The Center, located approximately 25 kilometers [15 miles] north of the city of Rabat in the Ma'mora Forest, will enable CNESTEN to fulfill its missions for promotion of nuclear technology in Morocco, contribute to the implementation of a national nuclear power program, and assist the State in monitoring nuclear activities for protection of the public and environment." [9] It was scheduled for completion in 2002.

There was a plan to build a nuclear reactor in Tantan for water desalination with the help of the Chinese government, but we found no reference to its existence. France is likely to be the next source of nuclear energy assistance to Morocco.

Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali and French President Sarkozy clinched a nuclear deal that will provide for the training of Tunisian engineers and the promotion of nuclear energy for civilian purposes. France has also agreed to provide technical assistance in developing a nuclear power plant within a 15- to 20-year period. [10]

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has signed deals with the United States and Great Britain for cooperating in peaceful use of nuclear energy. It has also invited global firms to bid for a contract to manage the country's nuclear power but has set no date for launching the program. U.S.-based Thorium Power, which provides advisory services for emerging nuclear programs, said it was advising the UAE on setting an independent nuclear regulatory agency, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation. [11] The London daily Al-Hayat reported "an unprecedented expansion" in economic cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and France to respond to the former's needs in the use of nuclear technology both for the production of power and the desalination of water. [12]

The UAE has also sought assistance from South Korea for developing nuclear power projects. Ho-Won Kim, South Korean Deputy Minister of Knowledge Economy, told Gulf News that his country was providing technical advice. [13]

Saudi Arabia plans to launch a graduate program in nuclear power for peaceful purposes in the engineering college of King Saud University in Riyadh. The dean of the school, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Hamed underscored "big and rapid efforts" to get the program underway within two years. The school will accept initially 25 students with degrees in electric or mechanical engineering. [14]

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Sarkozy told Saudi businessmen in Riyadh that France was prepared to help Saudi Arabia in developing its nuclear program for peaceful purposes. He added that France was prepared to send its nuclear experts to operate the nuclear centers in the country. [15]

Jordan and the United Kingdom signed, in August, an agreement on cooperation in the nuclear field for peaceful purposes. The agreement was signed by Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, chairman of the British Nuclear Authority, and her Jordanian counterpart, Dr. Khaled Toqan. The Jordanian parliament approved legislation a year earlier permitting the Kingdom of Jordan to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, particularly in the field of energy and water desalination. [16]

Jordan signed a similar agreement with France which included provisions for training and the development of security and protection of the nuclear facilities. [17] Jordanian Prime Minister Nadir al-Thahabi announced that Jordan would sign an agreement with an unnamed French company to provide a reactor to be used for generating power and desalinating of water.

Jordan has also received support from the United States. During his visit to Jordan, U.S. Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman declared that the U.S. supports Jordan's nuclear program. He said the U.S. and Jordan have mutual agreement that insures the exchange of knowledge in this area. [18]

Egypt appears to be still hesitant to plunge into the nuclear power activity. Egyptian Minister of Electricity and Energy Dr. Hassan Yunis said that Egypt would be inviting a number of world companies to bid for the Egyptian nuclear program for peaceful purposes, but has set no deadline. [19] The five-year plan 2007-2012 makes no reference to nuclear energy, but rather focused on renewable energy plants, particularly those operated by wind or water. [20] Egypt has also been in discussion with the Ukraine, which generates 50% of its electricity by nuclear power and hence is considered a source of rich experience. [21] Nuclear Iran could easily spur Egypt to move more rapidly into the nuclear race.

Libya and France have signed a cooperation agreement on the civilian use of nuclear energy, which involves potentially big business for French companies. The French company Veolia signed a water desalination contract with Libya worth €2.1 billion over a period of 25 years. [22]

Iraq was an exception in moving in the opposite direction. It disposed of 550 tons of uranium known as "yellowcake" to a Canadian company for $71 million, or $50 a pound. Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology Ra'id Fahmi said there were political, economic, environmental and security reasons to dispose of the uranium. He explained the decision was in keeping with U.N. Security Council Resolution 707 of 1991, which called for a complete embargo on Iraq's nuclear activity. [23]

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is the Editor of The MEMRI Economic Blog,

[1] BBC News, September 25, 2006.


[3] Kayhan, Tehran, February 8, 2008.

[4] Times Online, November 4, 2006.

[5] MENA September 8, 2008.

[6] Gulf News, July 17, 2008.

[7] Poligazette, January 20, 2008.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 22, 2001.


[10] Magharebia, Germany, April 30, 2008.

[11] BusinessIntelligence, (Dubai), August 16, 2008.

[12] Al-Hayat, July 30, 2008.

[13] Gulf News, Dubai, May 13, 2008.

[14] Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 5, 2008.

[15] Al-Riyadh, January 15, 2008.

[16] Azzaman, Iraq, June 26, 2008.

[17] Al-Dustour, Jordan, May 30, 2008.

[18] Al-Rai, Jordan, January 18, 2008.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 28, 2008.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 4, 2007.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 6, 2008.

[22] Akhbar Libya, Libya, December 12, 2007.

[23] Al-Rifidayn, Iraq, July 17, 2008.

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