Kai-Henrik Barth on Nuclear Ambitions in the Gulf

Professor of Government Kai-Henrik Barth delivered the December 6, 2009 CIRS Monthly Dialogue on the topic of “Nuclear Ambitions in the Gulf.” He focused on nuclear proliferation concerns associated with ambitious goals to introduce nuclear power in the Gulf states, with an emphasis on the United Arab Emirates.

Barth’s presentation was divided in five parts. First, he emphasized the “puzzle” at the heart of the debate: why would Gulf Cooperation Council states, with their massive oil and gas reserves, seek to develop nuclear power? Second, he assessed the proliferation risks of nuclear power; third, he highlighted the Gulf’s strategic context, emphasizing GCC’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program; fourth, he analyzed the UAE’s nuclear effort; and, finally, he concluded with some policy recommendations.

Looking at nuclear power developments throughout the world, Barth said that “there are thirty states that have nuclear power stations and, in total, there are 436 nuclear reactors in operation. In the last couple of years, more than forty other states have requested assistance from the IAEA” to develop new programs. Barth said that “in the short time period from February 2006 to January 2007, thirteen countries in the region announced plans to use nuclear power.” These are countries in the greater Middle East and include all Gulf states with the exception of Iraq.

Barth argued that “investment in nuclear energy in the Gulf appears to be motivated by security rather than economic reasons.” The timing of the 2006 GCC nuclear policy announcement is significant because it suggests that nuclear ambitions in the Gulf are a response to three developments: a growing concern about a weakening role of the United States in the region, especially after the 2003 Iraq war; the rise of Shia confidence after the Israeli-Lebanese conflict of 2006; and, in particular, concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Barth maintained that the Gulf’s nuclear projects can be explained as “being primarily about security and driven by a concern about Iran’s nuclear program.”

In terms of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, Barth noted that regardless of the stated peaceful intentions of civilian projects, there always remains the possibility of a nuclear weapons option down the line. Uranium enrichment facilities, for example, can be used to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, but also for nuclear weapons. Equally, the chemical reprocessing of spent nuclear reactor fuel separates plutonium, which can be used for nuclear weapons. Barth argued that “the history of many nuclear weapons programs highlights the close relationship between civilian and military applications of nuclear power: military programs often benefitted from technology acquisition and expertise gained in civilian counterparts.” Although International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards are put in place to prevent this from happening, the threat is always present, Barth said.

Emphasizing the strategic context of nuclear programs in the Middle East, Barth noted that the threat of Iranian nuclear ambitions dominates the region. Highlighting the current status of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, he said that “the Gulf states and the greater Middle East have enough reasons to be concerned.” In addition, “the Iranian missile program doesn’t help to alleviate concerns in the region.” Barth added that “the relationship between the UAE and Iran is in a delicate balance; it is a rivalry, they are close neighbors, they are key economic partners, there is a long-standing territorial dispute over three islands in the Gulf, and, on top of this, the UAE hosts the largest Iranian expat community. So, it is a very complicated, interwoven relationship.”

Barth emphasized the UAE’s nuclear capabilities by arguing that “the UAE has the most ambitious national nuclear program in the GCC,” with two large nuclear power plants expected to be operational by 2017. Barth posed the questions, “is energy a viable or plausible explanation in the UAE case? And is there really a shortage despite all the oil and gas wealth?”

In response to these apprehensions, the UAE government maintains that “the UAE is concerned about energy security and it needs energy diversification.” Further, because water and electricity in the UAE are subsidized, “energy consumption rates in the Emirates are exceedingly high.” The UAE calculates that energy supplies will fall short of the growing demands over the next few decades. Indeed, according to official UAE estimates, “by 2020, the UAE will need 20 gigawatts of additional electricity production capabilities.” The UAE claims that nuclear energy is one competitive option to produce electricity. According to an official UAE energy policy document, the UAE had considered and rejected coal, primarily because of CO2 emissions; equally, while the UAE is pursuing alternative energies such as wind and solar power, officials concluded that their base-load energy production capabilities are limited. Barth argued, however, that the suggested economic advantages of nuclear power in the UAE are doubtful at best: high capital costs and the uncertainty of oil and gas prices make pursuing a nuclear power option in the Gulf economically very risky. According to Barth, optimistic assumptions about cheap electricity through nuclear power in the Gulf are questionable. He argued that while the UAE has legitimate energy concerns, security concerns vis-à-vis Iran are significant drivers of the UAE’s nuclear ambitions.

In conclusion, Barth relayed some policy recommendations that “provide energy security for GCC countries without provoking a nuclear proliferation cascade.” He proposed that nuclear supplier states should not sell nuclear power reactors to any country without stringent IAEA safeguards. He favored a worldwide moratorium on enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, in the Middle East in particular. Finally, Barth argued that ultimately, “nuclear power still has major problems and its relationship with nuclear weapons has not been erased and I do not see any future where it will be erased.”

Kai-Henrik Barth is Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. From 2002 to 2008 he was a member of the core faculty in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program (SSP) on the main campus, where he also served as Director of Studies for the last three years. Dr. Barth's current research focuses on the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation, with a particular emphasis on Iran. He has also begun to investigate the nuclear aspirations of the Gulf States. His publications have appeared in Physics Today and Social Studies of Science, among others, and he is the guest editor (with John Krige) of a special issue of the journal Osiris on Global Power Knowledge: Science and Technology in International Affairs (University of Chicago, 2006).

Article by Suzi Mirgani,CIRS Publications Coordinator.