Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead with a geological survey to explore and assess its uranium and thorium resources in the kingdom’s western Hail Province, in the face of US objections. Although this largely agricultural region was always thought to hold small supplies of these substances, Riyadh suddenly perked up of late to its potential after Chinese geologists turned up promising finds.
Hail produces large quantities of dates and fruit and most of the kingdom’s wheat and grain. It has historically derived its wealth as a wayside station on the camel caravan Hajj route to Mecca.
Most of the world’s uranium is found either in northern countries like Canada or Russia or the south in places like South Africa and southern Australia. Jordan is thought to have substantial reserves, up to 65,000 tons of uranium plus the potential to extract 140,000 tonnes from phosphates. Foreign firms have been given mining contracts.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Chinese geologists hired by the Saudi government reported that Jordan’s uranium deposits extend south as far as Saudi Arabia’s Hail. Riyadh’s eagerness to co-opt Beijing to the start of its uranium mining project has raised suspicions, especially in Washington, that Saudi Arabia is secretly conducting a nuclear program a lot bigger than suggested by intelligence findings.
The project is going forward as a partnership between the King Abdullah City for Atomic Research and Renewable Energy (KACARE) and China’s National Nuclear Cooperation (CNNC) for the stated aim of “exploring uranium and thorium deposits for peaceful use.”
Last October, the KACARE president Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani said his agency was tasked with “nuclear plans” and proposed to “extract uranium domestically as part of its nuclear program” and a step towards “self-sufficiency in the production of atomic fuel.”
Five months ago, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman laid the cornerstone for the kingdom’s first nuclear research reactor. This posed a question: Why does the nation with the world’s largest reserves of oil need nuclear reactors for power? It also raised the suspicion that the Saudis wanted a possible infrastructure for manufacturing plutonium from the nuclear fuel produced by this research reactor.
In past negotiations with the Obama administration, the Saudis firmly refused to relinquish their right to enrich uranium for use as nuclear fuel for their power reactors project. The Trump administration, in contrast, is prepared to countenance uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia under restrictions, despite strong objections in both houses of congress. Antagonism to Saudi Arabia among US lawmakers remains high over the suspicion that the crown prince engineered the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Although Riyadh replies that putting nuclear energy to civilian use will free up more of its oil for export, no one doubts that its overriding motivation is in the realm of “security.” The Saudis deeply resent lagging behind Iran’s nuclear efforts and watch with covetous and suspicious eyes the rapid nuclear advances achieved by their ally, the United Arab Emirates. In 2018, the UAE completed the construction of its first civilian nuclear plant. In an agreement with the United States the UAE signed a commitment not to use the reactor for uranium enrichment in return for which it was granted international assistance. The Saudis refuse to undertake this commitment, maintaining that since Iran is allowed to enrich uranium, they too have this right.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, on Wednesday, March 13, accused regional powers of “spending their petrodollars on suspicious nuclear projects” that could endanger security in the region and the world. He did not name those powers. Those new threats, Shamkhani said, would force Iran to revise its strategy depending on their nature and geography and the needs of “our country and armed forces.” Last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the United States of hypocrisy for trying to wreck Iran’s nuclear program while seeking to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional rival. The Saudi government has so far, with unusual stubbornness, refused to turn over to Washington any information on the nuclear program it is running out of King Abdullah City, or explain what Chinese engineers and technicians are doing there. Therefore, the decision to prospect for uranium and thorium in the Hail province has widened the differences between Riyadh and Washington on the nuclear issue. In an effort to bridge the gap, the US was last week reported to be “encouraging Saudi Arabia to consider bids by American companies to build nuclear reactors.” Washington hopes that if US companies like Westinghouse win those contracts, the administration will have access to a much clear picture on what is going on inside the Saudi nuclear program.