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Media reports say the U.S. is considering selling nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. Analyst Ali al-Ahmed is skeptical, and says Trump has just removed the fig leaf of concern for human rights abuses by the Gulf dictatorship

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton. One of the most extreme and repressive countries in the world is reportedly seeking to develop a nuclear program, and the Donald Trump administration appears to be supporting it. A new report by investigative journalist, Ken Klippenstein revealed that a US law firm linked to President Trump registered in February to lobby on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The firm is being paid nearly half a million dollars in the span of just one month alone to lobby the Trump administration as it deliberates whether or not to support a Saudi nuclear program.
A series of reports in the past several months show that Saudi Arabia has intensified its efforts to get Washington’s approval. The Washington Post reported in February that the Saudi monarchy is on the verge of announcing multi billion dollar contracts to construct nuclear power reactors along the Persian Gulf. It could build as many as 16 nuclear reactors over 25 years. Another report in the Wall Street Journal likewise confirmed that the Trump administration is considering selling nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia and that Riyadh is in fact pushing back against strict proliferation restrictions.
The Saudi regime has claimed that this is going to be a civilian program and that it only wants to use these nuclear reactors for energy production, not to create bombs. But some observers are skeptical, even The New York Times editorial board published an editorial in which it warned that, “There are growing signs that the Saudis want the option of building nuclear weapons to hedge against their archrival, Iran.”
To discuss the possibility of a Saudi nuclear program, we are joined by Ali al-Ahmed. Ali is the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, which is an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. He is also an investigative journalist who has published numerous reports on human rights in Saudi Arabia and is an expert on the affairs inside the country. Thanks so much for joining us, Ali.
ALI AL-AHMED: Thank you for having me.
BEN NORTON: It’s always very happy to have you here at The Real News. So, first of all, what do you make of these reports, Ali? Why is Saudi Arabia pursuing a nuclear program in the first place?
ALI AL-AHMED: Well, it is very much to compete with Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the Saudi monarchy always thinks of itself as a major player, as a leader of Arabs, a leader of Muslims. And Pakistan has a nuclear energy and nuclear bomb, Iran has nuclear energy and why shouldn’t Saudi Arabia? But this record, we have heard it before. 30 years ago, the Saudis said they will build a nuclear energy, and they haven’t done it. So, the fact that they’re just saying it, even lobbying for it, it doesn’t mean it will happen.
I doubt it very much that the American establishment will support Saudi efforts to build a nuclear energy program, even a civilian one because this is a hornet’s nest that the Americans don’t want to start. And they don’t want Israel to be in any way affected negatively because nuclear arms is something that you can’t undo any, no country, really, with nuclear arms independently, with the exception of few nations and the former Soviet states, who were disarmed from their nuclear weapons.
So, really, this is something that is strategic for the Americans in the Middle East, that they don’t want additional players to have nuclear arms or nuclear capability for that matter. So, I think this will not go anywhere. They might end up having something like what the UAE is having, meaning the right of enrichment or they will use these French reactors that doesn’t have any threat of being converted to arms.
BEN NORTON: Well, that’s a very interesting point, especially your point about Israel. For viewers who might not know, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that actually has a nuclear weapon. It has many nuclear weapons, at least 80, probably more, although this is technically a secret. It’s a very big, open secret. I mean, everyone knows this. But I’m actually interested, I think when we’re talking about Saudi Arabia’s potential nuclear program, of course, we have to distinguish between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. And I’m interested in your thoughts.
You say that this is a discussion we’ve had before, but of course, what we haven’t had before is Donald Trump in the White House. And it’s been very clear that Donald Trump and his administration are extremely supportive of Saudi Arabia. And especially when it comes to this question, Trump actually has a very concerning record. So actually, I don’t think it’s too surprising that the Trump administration may help Saudi Arabia potentially go nuclear. In fact, during his presidential campaign in March 2016, Trump infamously claimed, he said it was inevitable that the Saudi monarchy would eventually obtain a nuclear weapon.
So, there are, I guess, two things we can talk about here. Do you think that it’s inevitable eventually because you do seem to be a little skeptical. Trump said he thought it would be inevitable. And then, do you think that this statement from Trump, and then also the very close relationship that the Trump administration enjoys with Saudi Arabia, do you think that could be a break with the past, and we actually could see this develop for the first time?
ALI AL-AHMED: I don’t see it because I think Trump has said many things that did not materialize. What Trump says, it’s not a big deal anymore. But we must realize that, in terms of nuclear program, you need a lot of infrastructure that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have it. It will need 20 years at least to have it and to spend a lot of money. You need the experts, you need the infrastructure. Look at Iran, for example, which has a lot of qualified people in terms of nuclear energy, and their single station, Bushehr reactor, was supposed to start operating in 1970s. It didn’t happen until 2016 or 2015. So, it really takes a lot of effort, a lot of planning, the infrastructure, the education.
Saudis do not have sufficient number of engineers, and when the engineers who run nuclear program are extremely restricted around the world. So, you can’t just hire American nuclear scientists to go work in Saudi Arabia. This is considered national security. So, they might start the process where it ends up Saudis paying billions of dollars to Westinghouse and other companies, but at the end of the day, a program like this, especially when Saudis are lobbying, they’re lobbying for the right to enrich and the right to keep the spent fuel from the uranium from that.
And I think that’s what I’ve seen, is that they want these two rights, and I don’t think they would get it. And if they don’t get it, why have the nuclear program to start with? Because they don’t need it. Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil and has a lot of sun, and they don’t need to spend, it would be more expensive to have a nuclear program for Saudi Arabia because, again, it has other sources, much cheaper sources, and especially oil and the solar energy.
BEN NORTON: You raised from very good points and this actually segues very well. I was going to ask you specifically about the Saudi oil sector. We’ve seen that part of the so called 2030 plan from the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is essentially the de facto ruler of the country. He claims that he wants to diversify the economy and move away from just the fact that the GDP is almost entirely based on oil production. One of the things that actually he’s deliberated and especially with the recent deal signed with Egypt of $10 billion of investment in this new mega-city, Neom.
So, do you think that maybe the discussion of this potential nuclear program is maybe part of this illusion that Mohammed bin Salman is trying to reform Saudi Arabia in this particular direction and move away from the emphasis on oil production? Or do you think it’s a fig leaf to justify further aggression against Iran? I know you’re skeptical of the idea that Saudi Arabia with eventually create a nuclear program, so why do you think that we see so many media reports about this?
ALI AL-AHMED: Well, this nothing new. Again, the Saudis, I have a paper clipping from 1983, where King Salman at the time was the ruler of Riyadh, the governor of Riyadh,and he was the governor of Riyadh city and region for 51 years. And he said that, “We will have, we will complete the sewage network in Riyadh.” Today, in 2018, Riyadh city, the capital of the world- eading oil exporter for 80 years, just last week we had the anniversary for the 80 years since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, the capital of that oil exporter, does not have a sewage system. Only 20% of the city there has. There is no public transportation in Riyadh.
So, you are talking about the mirage, the illusions that you spoke about. The Saudis are very good at making these massive claims. At the end of the day, they cannot deliver. If Mohammed bin Salman knew anything about the economy, he should never go build the cities for robots. He should build cities for people because right now, most people are basically homeless. When I say homeless, meaning that they don’t own a home in a country that is so huge. It’s one third, in terms of size, of the United States and only with 20 million people, yet 70 plus percent of the people live in rental apartments and homes.
So, you are talking about continuous failure for what I call the Saudi failure for the past 80 years. If they couldn’t build and put some pipes to run the sewage, they’re not going to be able to build a nuclear program. I’m sorry, this is much harder to do, to build a nuclear program. It takes a lot of talent and a lot of effort and a coordinating effort. So, those people who could not put some pipes in the ground or run a bus service, they are not going to be able to do this. And it’s very dangerous for the neighborhood. So, the Americans and the Europeans will not take the risk.
BEN NORTON: Great. Well, before we conclude here, I’m also interested in what you think about the Trump administration’s overall relationship with Saudi Arabia. It’s very clear that US support for the Saudi monarchy has remained consistent and bipartisan since the early 20th century. Every single president has maintained pretty close ties to Saudi Arabia. The Obama Administration, in fact, offered more than $115 billion of arms deals with the Saudi monarchy.
But it seems like the Trump administration has really clearly ramped up support for the monarchy. In fact, we saw last year, Donald Trump himself, he did a sword dance with members of the royal family. We even saw Steve Bannon and other figures, these far right Islamophobes in this administration, who were rubbing elbows with the monarchy. So, do you think the Trump administration is different from its predecessors in these regards? Is Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia, has it increased compared to his predecessors?
ALI AL-AHMED: I don’t think it has increased really, but what happened is when you, for example, I compare Obama and Trump. Obama was doing what Trump is doing, but he was just talking differently. Trump, he doesn’t care to hide it. Obama was one of those people who knew of the Saudi war on Yemen. The US officers at Central Command actually knew the plans, participated in the targeting before the war started. They knew this. They were engaged, and Obama okayed it. You need the president to okay this, so Obama okayed this war. And you notice, Obama has been silent on Saudi war crimes in Yemen, even after he left the White House. It’s because he’s part of it, and his administration was the instigator mainly for this war. Saudis were just the tool. As Obama says, “Leading from behind.” Yeah, he led the Saudis to bomb the poorest Arab country using American weaponry and Obama supported it.
Trump is more open about it and to be honest, this is better for me. And he’s much more honest about his policy than a person who fakes his image and say, “I’m a humanitarian, I’m anti racist, and I do this, I’m an activist,” and the same time plans and supports this war and supports the Saudi crown prince. So far, it was, the first American official to praise Mohammed bin Salman was Obama, but Trump did it, but again, Trump is Trump. He doesn’t claim, “Oh, I’m an activist, I care about human beings.” He’s much more honest about it, and I think that that should be wrong, it is, but that’s the way it should be. You should have the courage at least to take responsibility for your actions, unlike the Obama Administration and Obama himself, who was speaking one thing and doing another.
So, I think Trump did not increase it, but he is much more of a businessman who wants to make money in the process. And if the Saudis burn half of Yemen, he would not flinch. So, it’s amazing, but this is the reality of the American administrations. You don’t look at what they actually say, you look at what actually is done.
BEN NORTON: Well, that’s a very interested perspective. Thanks so much for your analysis, Ali. I would say, I mean, Donald Trump has never been weary of taking credit for things he’s not responsible for. He does it all the time.
ALI AL-AHMED: Yeah, I understand that, but at least he is not saying, “Oh, I’m a…” and gives these speeches, all of these utopian speeches.
BEN NORTON: Well, thank you for joining us. It’s always interesting to have your analysis, Ali.
ALI AL-AHMED: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Ali Al-Ahmed is a Saudi scholar and expert on Saudi political affairs including: terrorism, Islamic movements, Wahhabi Islam, Saudi political history, Saudi-American relations, and the al-Saud family history. He is a writer, and public speaker on Saudi political issues.

He has been invited to speak by Princeton University, Amnesty International, the Hudson Institute and Meridian International Center.

As journalist he exposed major news stories such as the Pentagon's botched translation of the 9-11 Bin Laden tape, and the video of Daniel Pearl's murder.

He has authored reports on Saudi Arabia regarding religious freedom, torture, press freedom, and religious curriculum.

A frequent consultant to major world media outlets including CBS News, CNN, PBS, Fox News, Washington Post, and Associated Press.

Al-Ahmed has been quoted in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe and other newspapers in several languages.

He graduated with a B.A. in Journalism and Science and a M.A. in International Finance from Saint Thomas University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.