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BENJAMIN KHOSHBIN: If Biden Doesn’t Help This US Ally, China Will

Photo by Yan Ke / Unsplash

By Benjamin Khoshbin for the Daily Caller Foundation | May 7, 2023

A rising China threatens to disrupt the U.S.-led Western world order. Through the strategic investments of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s debt-trap diplomacy and technological exports have positioned them as a far-fiercer rival to the West than the Soviet Union. The U.S. can counter China by beating them to the punch on a key export opportunity: nuclear energy development in Saudi Arabia.

Nuclear energy is one of the many exports that China has used to bring countless nations closer to its orbit and away from the West; Saudi Arabia could be the next recipient of a Chinese reactor. To counter this, the U.S. should accept the kingdom’s request for our assistance in building a civilian nuclear energy program. If we don’t, China almost certainly will.

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an article titled “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Global Push for Nuclear Power” — analyzing the kingdom’s efforts to secure American assistance in building a civilian nuclear energy program. These efforts have come up short, despite Saudi Arabia offering to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for America’s help.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest oil producer, has ambitious clean energy goals. The kingdom plans to spend nearly $270 billion (1 trillion riyals) on clean energy projects, with a focus on clean hydrogen, and aims to generate 50% of its electricity from clean energy by 2030.

The kingdom has wanted nuclear energy to be a part of its energy portfolio for quite a while, and they appear closer than ever to accomplishing that goal. In June of 2011, the kingdom announced plans to construct 16 nuclear reactors over 20 years, ultimately intending for nuclear energy to provide roughly 20 percent of electricity demand — around the same as nuclear’s share of America’s electricity. Yet since 2011, Saudi Arabia has not begun constructing a single reactor.

Saudi Arabia has struggled to build a civilian nuclear program because it has yet to convince potential international partners that its nuclear endeavors are strictly civilian. The kingdom’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told a mining and industry conference in Riyadh earlier this year that Saudi Arabia intends to build out the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including “the production of yellowcake, low enriched uranium and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and of course, for export.”

The prospect of Saudi Arabia producing exportable yellowcake raises nonproliferation concerns from U.S. policymakers, but not from China, which has already helped the kingdom build a facility to extract yellowcake from uranium ore, a crucial step in the enrichment process.

Nuclear energy investments are just one part of the growing Chinese-Saudi alliance: Saudi Arabia was the second-largest recipient of BRI investments last year, receiving $5.6 billion from China. Earlier this month, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations after China brokered talks between the two nations — a signal that America’s status as the Middle East’s mediator, and its close alliance with Saudi Arabia, might be ending.

While China has not made an official bid to build reactors for Saudi Arabia, it’s highly likely they will. Russia’s state-owned nuclear company Rosatom submitted a bid last December, and the kingdom expects South Korea, France, and China to bid as well. China has agreements to build reactors with a dozen different countries from Kenya to Kazakhstan, and has already completed four reactors in Pakistan with another two on the way.

China uses BRI investments as a soft power mechanism to bring states away from the U.S. and into its sphere of influence. Losing Saudi Arabia as a U.S. ally would have severe consequences: They are the largest purchaser of American weapons, and maintain significant control over global oil markets thanks to their massive oil reserves. The kingdom is considering arms agreements with China, however, and has shown they’re willing to cement their control over oil markets at the expense of the U.S.

The U.S. doesn’t have to go at it alone, however. South Korea wants to build Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plants, but likely does not have the capacity to present a winning bid on its own. South Korea’s state-owned nuclear company, KEPCO, is also in an intellectual property dispute with American nuclear company Westinghouse over reactor designs. An American-South Korean partnership could smooth over that dispute and produce an attractive bid to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is not a moral ally of the U.S., and we must continue to condemn their human rights abuses, regardless of our economic and strategic relationship. Yet we are in a great power competition with China — one that requires us to view our alliances through a realist lens. A nuclear energy partnership with Saudi Arabia would benefit American nuclear developers, pave the way for a Saudi-Israeli detente, and ensure that Saudi Arabia stays closer to America than to China.

Benjamin Khoshbin is a Contributor for Young Voices, where he writes on energy and environmental issues. He is also a Senior Account Executive at ROKK Solutions, a bipartisan public affairs firm in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenKhoshbin, and view his other writing and media appearances here.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are Benjamin’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of ROKK Solutions or its clients.

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