Saudi Arabia's Motivation to Enrich Uranium

Anthony Onyeador
January 29, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (shown in Fig. 1) recently announced their desire to mine and enrich uranium for a nuclear energy program. [1] However there are many who are skeptical of their motivations. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long history of tension and economically, enriching uranium would cost billions to develop. [1] On top that, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman has said that if Iran developed nuclear weapons Saudi Arabia would "follow suit as soon as possible". [1] Adding fuel to that fire was a CGI video released depicting Saudi Arabia's hypothetical response to an attack from Iran, which includes missiles with nuclear capabilities. [2]

Rivalry with Iran

Saudi Arabia is a primarily Sunni muslim country and Iran is a primarily a Shiite muslim nation. Since the Iranian revolution, anti-American Iran has been in constant tension with U.S. allied Saudi Arabia. [3] The two countries have been on opposite sides of virtually every conflict in the region including conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Saudi Arabia periodically accuses Iran of supporting Shiite rebels and groups in neighboring middle eastern countries. Iran has also claimed that the Saudis don't deserve the responsibilities of Mecca and the holy pilgrimmage after claims of discrimination towards Shiite visitors. [3] Tensions are coming to a head now because the common enemy of ISIS is losing traction in the region, in addition to the election of Donald Trump and his anti-Iranian sentiments. [3] Both countries are trying to build ties with Iraq in the vacuum, and it is believed that Trump's sentiments are bringing out anti-Iranian feelings that have been lurking under the surface in the peninsula.

Economic Inconsistencies

Experts claim that since the world is flooded in reactor-ready uranium, spending the billions of dollars on enrichment. [1] Uranium accounts for as little as 1 percent of operating costs in a plant. [1] Prices for uranium are at a low of $21.75 a pound and since 2009 prices have dropped an average of 14 percent per year. [1] Demand for uranium has been low, motivated by the bulk of reactors closing in Japan after the 2011 tsunami, and the closing of nuclear plants in the U.S. and Germany. [1] Saudi Arabia claims that it is their right to mine and enrich their uranium, but in low demand cases, companies are even less likely to sell the uranium enrichment process, further increasing the cost of nuclear energy production.


Clearly, Saudi Arabia has ulterior motives to enrich uranium. The economics don't make sense, and tensions with Iran fuel their desire to keep up with their nuclear program. They have a strong argument to pursue nuclear energy because they have their own uranium and the major world powers have already set a precedent for nuclear energy with Iran. As a bonus, spent nuclear reactor fuel can easily be repurposed to nuclear payloads allowing them to keep up with Iran if necessary. If Saudi Arabia, an ally of the US, is treated in a way that is inconsistent with Iran, it could destabilize an already tense relationship. The world will have to find a way to navigate these ulterior motives in a fair way while further nuclear proliferation in the middle east and the world.

© Anthony Onyeador. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work99 in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Mufson, "Why Does Saudi Arabia Want to Spend Billions to Enrich Its Own Uranium?" Washington Post, 19 Mar 18.

[2] D. D. Kirkpatrick, "A Glimpse of a Crown Prince's Dream? Saudi Arabia Invades Iran in CGI," New York Times, 20 Mar 18.

[3] "The 'Cold War' between Iran and Saudi Arabia Is Heating up. Here Are 5 Things You Should Know About It," Public Radio International, 12 Nov 17.