Why the UAE’s New Nuclear Program Won’t Change Much in the Middle East

The United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to open a nuclear power plant last weekend, on August 1. It is the third regional power to do so after fellow Middle Eastern arch-rivals Israel and Iran. But unlike Israel, who has a yet-to-be-known amount of nuclear weapons, and Iran, whose uranium enrichment program is demonstrably perilous to the Middle East, Emiratis haved vowed to only use their nuclear power for energy purposes.

Why is the UAE Building Up its Nuclear Power Program?

Purportedly built to diminish its dependence on oil and gas, the Emirates’ new nuclear program is expected to provide a quarter of the country’s electricity, while its oil and gas exports account for about a quarter of its gross domestic product. However, its four nuclear power units, which were designed by a South Korean firm, have yet to start running, Emiratis said.

Regional powers such as Qatar and Iran, reacted to the UAE’s move by deeming it a threat to the stability of the Middle East. While Doha fears that Emiratis are bolstering their regional hegemony with the new nuclear program, Iran saw in it a novel menace added to that of Israel. Although the United Arab Emirates and Israel have yet to normalize diplomatic ties — despite covert efforts — their shared enmity toward Iran and alliance with the United States appears to have only been growing over the past years.

Qatar and Iran Condemn UAE’s Nuclear Program

In a letter sent by Qatar to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (a UN watchdog) last year, Doha expressed its concerns about its neighboring country’s nuclear program and called on the organization to establish a framework for nuclear security in the region.

“Qatar believes that the lack of any international cooperation with neighboring states regarding disaster planning, health and safety and the protection of the environment pose a serious threat to the stability of the region and its environment,” the letter read.

Qatar, whose ties with the United Arab Emirates have been strained in the last decade over accusations that Qatar supported terrorism in Syria and other conflicted neighboring countries, said that a radioactive plume from an accidental discharge could reach Doha within 13 hours. Qatar also feared that a radiation leak would have a devastating effect on the whole region’s water supply.

The Emirati Perspective

The United Arab Emirates, however, argued that its Barakah nuclear plant, based in Al Gharbiya region that borders Qatar and Saudi Arabia, conforms to the international standards, including those of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We proudly witness the start of Barakah nuclear power plant operations, in alignment with the highest international safety standards,” Mohammed bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler, tweeted the day of the opening of Barakah.

The nuclear power plant was set to launch on 2017, after a deal with the United States in 2009. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are likely to follow suit, after similar deals with the United States.

Inflaming Middle Eastern Tensions?

Many observers and analysts see in such projects the risk of flaring up tensions between the Middle East’s major actors, not least Iran and its regional proxies, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen – who claimed an attack against the Barak plant while it was still under construction in 2017. But such plans would not come to be realized without the United States’ explicit support, and thus fall in line with the US foreign policy in the Middle East and the already existing geopolitical settings there.

While Egypt is also planning to build a plant with four nuclear reactors, Saudi Arabia aims at establishing the region’s most significant one, with a plant that would bear as many as 17 reactors.

But none of the Arab countries would use their programs to develop nuclear weapons, as required by the United States, which urged the Saudis and Emiratis to sign safeguard agreements that would allow intrusive inspections. Thus, Israel would remain the only regional country believed to have access to nuclear weapons (with few to no inspections at all), while Iran persists in attempts to achieve the same with its uranium enrichment program despite sanctions and international condemnation.