Background and Scope of the Project

The Nuclear Question in the Middle East

Scope of Project

In early 2010, CIRS began working on a new research project on “The Nuclear Question in the Middle East.” While the world community’s attention may currently be drawn to Iran’s nuclear program, this project aims to take a far more comprehensive and expansive look at the issue across the region. Engaging with a number of academics who are experts in their fields of study, CIRS has determined that this is a complex, nuanced subject and that there are several areas which require further focused study. The CIRS approach includes sub-topics which are organized thematically and have been identified as having relevance across the region, as well as a number of selected country case studies. In May of this year, renowned scholars working on nuclear issues in the Middle East were invited to participate in a CIRS working group for focused discussions on this range of sub-topics.

During these meetings certain main themes began to emerge. Balancing the need for fair exchange of civilian nuclear technology against the concerns of weaponization programs is one aspect of the nuclear question within the region. Understanding the domestic political realms of different Middle Eastern states, the possible forces that provide momentum for or against the nuclear movement, and the dynamics of internal policy debates amongst various political elites is crucially important. Examining the interconnected regional nature of nuclear programs (in the GCC for example) and how the different states may be propelling each other towards competing for the same prize. Energy provision itself being seen as an issue of state security, and how in the resource-rich states of the GCC providing low cost energy for its citizenry is vital for maintaining stability.

Following the initial meeting and the further paring down to areas meriting further original scholarship, CIRS researchers began working on papers in their area specialties. The ultimate product of this research project will be an edited book on The Nuclear Question in the Middle East


By the early 1990s most of the world had stopped building new nuclear plants, and had opted for less expensive and safer means of meeting their energy needs. Nuclear power plants were almost twice as costly to construct and to operate as other alternative energy plants. Nuclear power had also lost popular appeal due to public perception that it was potentially unsafe and led to environmental dangers such as the production of radioactive waste. World nuclear power use was largely expected to be on the wane, and heading towards a permanent decline. It was assumed that the new century would see limited opportunity for expansion of nuclear power.

Today things have completely turned around, and nuclear energy is once again in the spotlight. Over the past few years the world has seen a marked increase in the number of states either actively engaging in the development of nuclear power programs, or else at least declaring their future intentions of doing so. To such an extent has this trend been apparent that experts have voiced that we may be in the throes of a global nuclear renaissance. The Gulf states, along with other countries within the greater Middle East, have been amongst the most active in expressing their interest in developing non-weaponized, nuclear energy programs. In some quarters, these intentions have caused alarm, particularly as the region is viewed as potentially unstable and prone to conflict. Opponents of nuclear energy programs in the Middle East often state that their concerns are based on legitimate fears of the development of a region-wide arms race.

The oil-rich countries of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have all begun efforts to develop civilian nuclear power programs. These intentions have been declared as being peaceful, but essential for continued economic growth and economic diversification. Currently these countries expend huge amounts of energy not only on the production of electricity for their domestic populations, but also on water desalinization which is highly energy intensive. Several of the Gulf states face greater problems on this front in the future; in the UAE alone the demand for electricity is expected to quadruple in the next ten years. Burning fossil fuels to meet their domestic needs is unsustainable and uneconomical for these countries, and nuclear power is seen as being an effective solution to their difficulties in meeting their energy requirements. The UAE’s program is developing rapidly, and contracts have already been signed with international partners who will be assisting them in building their nuclear reactors. Like most other states within the Middle East, the UAE is a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, which ensures that nations that give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons are allowed to have full rights of access to civilian nuclear energy. It is not just the GCC that is focusing on nuclear power as a solution to energy shortfalls; Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and a host of other countries within the region have recently expressed their interest in developing nuclear programs.

Given the increased level of interest in nuclear energy worldwide, and the particular implications for the region, this subject is one that merits further scholarly discussion and focus. Amongst other topics, some of which CIRS aims to address through “The Nuclear Question in the Middle East” research initiative are:

  • Middle Eastern States Domestic Impetus for Nuclear Programs
  • Nuclear Energy in the Gulf
  • Nuclear Proliferation in the Gulf
  • Nuclear Power and Climate Change: A Case Study of The UAE
  • Iran’s Nuclear Program
  • The Saudi Arabian Nuclear Program
  • Israel’s Nuclear Program
  • Turkey’s Nuclear Program
  • Libya and Egypt’s Nuclear Programs: A Comparative Study

Participants in The Nuclear Question in the Middle East research initiative are:

  • Mustafa Alani, Gulf Research Center, UAE.
  • Saleh Al Mani, King Saud University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
  • Abdullah Al-Shayji, Kuwait University, Kuwait
  • Kai-Henrik Barth, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Qatar
  • Kayhan Barzegar, Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, Iran
  • Avner Cohen, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.
  • Nabil Fahmy, American University in Cairo, Egypt
  • Riad Kahwaji, INEGMA, United Arab Emirates
  • Mehran Kamrava, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Qatar
  • Ayman Khalil, Arab Institute for Security Studies, Jordan
  • Mustafa Kibaroglu, Bilkent University, Turkey
  • Thomas W. Lippman, Council of Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.
  • Giacomo Luciani, Gulf Research Center, UAE
  • Mari Luomi, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Finland
  • Maria Rost Rublee, University of Auckland, New Zealand
  • Adnan Shihabeldin, Kuwait National Nuclear Energy Committee, Kuwait
  • Etel Solingen, University of California, Irvine
  • Abdullah Toukan, Jordanian Middle East Peace Negotiations Delegation, Jordan