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Saudi Arabia is considering bids to build a nuclear power station from countries including China, France and Russia as the kingdom seeks to sway the US over a sensitive security pact.
The kingdom, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, has long sought its own civil nuclear capability and has made US assistance with the programme a key demand in a potential deal to normalise relations with Israel.
A breakthrough in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a major diplomatic victory for President Joe Biden’s administration, which has described it as a priority. But Washington has baulked at Saudi Arabia’s demand for there to be no restrictions on enriching its own uranium.
With the US insisting on placing curbs on the use of the technology, Saudi Arabia is considering alternative offers to develop the nuclear facilities from countries including China, Russia and France, according to people familiar with the matter.
One person said Saudi Arabia would make its decision based on the best offer. Another said that while Riyadh would prefer the US, which is seen to have better technology and is already a close Saudi partner, Washington’s restrictions on uranium enrichment would scupper co-operation.
The Israeli government, which has pushed for a diplomatic deal with the kingdom, has remained guarded on the issue. But Israeli security officials and opposition leaders have raised vocal objections, arguing the transfer of technology could lead to more nuclear proliferation in the region.
But Israel’s strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer earlier this month suggested that Saudi Arabia could turn to China or other countries if the US withheld its assistance. Russia has also announced a bid.
Those countries would be expected to accept Saudi Arabia’s conditions on domestic enrichment, while Korea, which uses US technology, would need to work within US export constraints.
The process of finding a provider of nuclear technology has already been running for several years. Bidders including France’s state-owned EDF and Kepco of South Korea were initially shortlisted along with a Chinese offer in 2018.
Consultations have since continued, though there is little indication of when they might conclude or a developer might be chosen, one person close to the process said.
Kepco was chosen to build a nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates, its first in the Middle East, which is now operational. EDF said the company’s “[bid] proposal addresses all expectations from Saudi stakeholders”.
China National Nuclear Corp, the country’s state-owned nuclear power group, did not immediately comment on the bidding process. But it has announced partnerships with Saudi Arabia in the past to develop the nuclear industry in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has drawn closer to China, its largest trading partner, in recent years and earlier this week was invited to join the Brics group of emerging economies. It hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping last year for a Gulf summit, and months later Beijing brokered a rapprochement between the kingdom and its main rival in the region, Iran.
But the kingdom remains heavily reliant on US security assistance, and wants Washington to agree a defence pact.
Any such deal, along with nuclear co-operation on Saudi terms, would face opposition from some American lawmakers. Biden has largely patched up his relationship with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after having pledged to turn him into a pariah following the 2018 murder of Washington Post commentator and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi by state agents. But the kingdom still faces strong criticism in Washington.
Earlier this week, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the administration would ask the International Atomic Energy Agency for an opinion on nuclear co-operation with Saudi Arabia to guide any decision on assistance. “There are still some ways to travel,” he said of any deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Additional reporting: Joe Leahy in Beijing