MIDDLE EAST: Are France, U.S. Pushing Arabs Into Nuclear Race?

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UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, Credit: Wikimedia CommonsNuclear Abolition News | IDN
By Fareed Mahdy*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

ISTANBUL (IDN) - The oil-rich United Arab Emirates’ decision to build nuclear reactors on its soil has unleashed a frenetic, politically backed competition between giant corporations from France, U.S., Japan and South Korea, to win the $40 billion bid for this project, which may lead to a nuclear race involving other Gulf Arab states. JAPANESE

 

The UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan signed on Oct. 4, a nuclear strategy and a new law to regulate the production and development of nuclear energy in the seven-emirate federation that he chairs.

Following the announcement, UAE authorities rushed to underline the peaceful purposes of the nuclear programme, while stressing that the UAE does not intend to enrich uranium itself. This process would be carried out abroad.

“The UAE's nuclear programme is a peaceful project based on its commitment not to enrich uranium, and its ability to achieve the necessary degree of fuel security through a strong infrastructure”, UAE Special Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Hamad Al Kaabi, told reporters on Oct. 4.

Kaabi also informed that UAE has set up a Federal Authority of Nuclear Regulation to promote safety, security and radiological protection, with former IAEA technical adviser William Travers as director-general.

He declined to provide information regarding the number of reactors the UAE intends to build. The UAE nuclear plants are scheduled to be operational in 2017.

UAE is signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

NOT ONLY BUSINESS

Though seemingly another standard commercial competition between big corporations to win a multibillion dollars bid, the UAE nuclear programme has also unleashed a tough political race, with France apparently having the upper hand.

In fact, French president Nicolas Sarkozy co-chaired the official inauguration, last May, of the first French military base in the UAE, in what has been considered as long step forward to integrate the oil-rich Gulf region -- so far a sort of U.S. 'protectorate'-- into French security strategies.

Sarkozy has reportedly promoted French business sector to handle the UAE nuclear deal. A French consortium formed by Areva, TOTAL, and Suez-Gaz de France has been leading the race to win the bid of constructing the first nuclear reactors in an Arab country.

Other major competitors are a Japanese-American tandem integrated by Hitachi and General Electric; a South Korean Electric Hyundai-Samsung, and the U.S. Westinghouse.

THE AMERICAN PRESSURE

Parallel to French pressures, the U.S. business sector has been relying on the support of the neo-conservative political and commercial groups of interest.

In fact, it was the U.S. previous neo-conservative administration who signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with the UAE, last January before quitting the White House.

Initially the deal negotiation process was expected to finalise in September. But a number of Congressmen reportedly posed objections to the construction of nuclear facilities on the UAE, arguing that “components” might fall into the hands of Iran.

Meanwhile, the UAE heir Mohammed bin Zayed recently visited the United States to check the state of things.

Immediately after, he visited Paris to review the French offer. There, the UAE heir met the general secretary of French Presidency, Claude Gueant, who is reported to be in-charge in Paris of the UAE nuclear file.

THE BIG FEAR

The approval of UAE nuclear programme merited a wide local media coverage, which significantly went in line with the repeated UAE officials' assurances that the UAE nuclear programme would be for peaceful purposes only.

At the same time, the UAE has been trying over and over again to dissipate fears that the nuclear enriched material, if further developed, would be capable of producing nuclear weapons.

The latest is the main declared argument of Western powers in the face of Iranian nuclear programme, which the West alleges could be diverted to military purposes, that is, to developing nuclear weapons.

In fact, concerns that the UAE nuclear plans may lead to nuclear race in the Middle East, were raised even before the plants were approved.

Under the title ‘Arab states race for nuclear power', United Press International wrote on Sept. 9, “Amid the gathering storm over Iran's controversial nuclear ambitions, the race is on among Arab states to build nuclear power plants of their own, opening up immense trade opportunities for the industrialized world as well as the specter of proliferation.”

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia “are competing for contracts in the nuclear energy bonanza that is emerging in the Middle East as Arab states seek to generate more power to feed their growing economies and to build desalination plants, a vital element in development plans as water resources shrink”, it added.

At the same time, Sarkozy’s government has reportedly promised assistance to Qatar and Morocco, to launch their own nuclear programmes.

Egypt and Jordan would also be heading for building nuclear plants. In fact, Cairo signed last year with Moscow, an agreement on Russian enrolment in the setting up of nuclear plants in Egypt.

Mahtab Alam Rizvi, research assistant at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, wrote last March for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies “It is clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon programme would spur a regional arms race, involving the acquisition of nuclear arms by other regional powers like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Turkey.”

Saudi Arabia recently announced its plans, as a member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), to pursue peaceful nuclear technology, he wrote. In Dec. 2007, Alam Rizvi added, the GCC announced the intent to commence a joint programme to develop nuclear energy.

“The Saudis, along with their fellow GCC members recently announced a plan to create a body that would provide enriched uranium to the states of the Middle East.”

Alam Rizvi concluded that if other states in the Middle East that have claimed an interest in nuclear energy follow through with their proposed plans, “the potential for increased instability in the region could have a detrimental effect on the price of oil in the region. . . ”

UAE SHOWING THE (NUCLEAR) WAY TO THE OTHERS

But UAE has stressed that its nuclear facilities would be safe. The UAE state-run news agency WAM declared Oct. 6 that the UAE "yet again shows the way ahead to others."

The same day, the UAE-based Gulf News daily, in its editorial titled 'UAE's nuclear strategy is trail-blazing', wrote: "This is the key to UAE's trail-blazing nuclear strategy, which is based on the premise that it wants the power from the nuclear stations but does not want to deal with the fuel.”

“It has contributed to setting up a new UN agency which will handle all fuel enrichment and processing. This means that the UAE can never fall under suspicion of miss-using this nuclear material, and has helped set up a system that many other would-be nuclear states will be able to follow," its added.

"The nuclear energy law shows the UAE offering international leadership in the nuclear arena, using its resources to set up a safe and totally transparent system, which other countries can follow,” it said.

However it alerted: “The dangers from proliferation of nuclear weapons are very serious. It is essential to stop the possibility that the material for a weapon of mass destruction could end up in the hands of an irresponsible government, or be passed on to a terrorist group.”

Also the Khaleej Times in its Oct. 6 editorial "Nuclear Power: UAE Shows the Way", wrote: "What is remarkable is the UAE's resolve to keep its nuclear power programme totally above board and beyond the pale of all controversies and disputes."

"(With) the crucial policy decision by UAE, seeking civilian nuclear option mostly for generating electricity and yet avoiding the critical enrichment process, the UAE has once again shown the way forward to others in the region," it said.

NUCLEAR INDUSTRY HAS ITS SAY

In line with the above, the London-based World Nuclear Association (WNA), whose declared role is to promote nuclear energy and support companies that comprise the global nuclear industry, informed on Oct. 5 on the UAE decision.

According to the association, the UAE approved law aims at “establishing a national nuclear regulatory authority and prohibiting the country from pursuing uranium enrichment”.

The 'Federal Authority of Nuclear Regulation' is a fully independent nuclear safety regulatory authority, which aims to "oversee the nuclear energy sector in the UAE and to promote the highest standards of nuclear safety, nuclear security and radiological protection", said WNA.

It stressed: “The law prohibits the development, construction or operation of uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities within the borders of the UAE."

The WNA insisted on underlining that the UAE “has promised to never enrich and reprocess uranium or other fuel and to instead obtain nuclear fuel from reliable international suppliers, in line with the co-operation agreement signed with the USA earlier this year”.

The USA will have the right to cancel the agreement if the UAE reneges on its commitment not to engage in enrichment or reprocessing activities, it said

The criminalisation and assignment of harsh civil and criminal penalties for violating the law, including the unauthorised use, theft, transport or trade in nuclear materials, is also established by the law, it stressed.

According to WNA, the UAE is therefore actively working towards introducing nuclear power with plans for three reactors to be online by 2020. It has signed co-operation agreements and memoranda of understanding with a number of countries and companies including France, the UK and the USA. (IDN-InDepthNews/20.10.09)

2009 IDN-InDepthNews Service
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(This article is part of a media project initiated by the Tokyo-based Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a Buddhist association, and the Inter Press Service global news agency to strengthen public awareness of the urgent need for nuclear abolition. The writer is special correspondent of IDN-InDepthNews service, an external partner of IPSEurope that coordinates the project.)

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