Several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have announced plans to build nuclear power plants and over the next decade, new nuclear power plants are scheduled to be operational throughout the MENA region.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is ahead with its Barakah flagship project that will be the first Arab nuclear power plant. The first unit is expected to start generating electricity in 2017, and the final unit is scheduled for operation in 2020. Saudi Arabia will follow with the most ambitious nuclear plan, involving sixteen nuclear reactors to be built by 2032 with a total capacity of more than 17 GW. The first reactor is expected to be operating in 2022. Jordan signed a deal with Russia to build Jordan’s first nuclear power plant, with a capacity of 2,000 megawatts (MW), projected to be operational in 2023.
Countries in MENA have justified their pursuit of nuclear energy, in the desire to meet a rapidly rising demand for electricity, support economic growth, achieve greater security of supply and diversify their energy mix. But the nuclear initiative among the MENA countries can be considered as a status symbol and a response to the Iranian nuclear infrastructure in the context of their strategic competition with Iran.
The transition from civil nuclear power to nuclear weapons, however, is not that straightforward, although it can be argued that the technology required for peaceful purposes makes militarization easier.
Egypt and the nuclear power
Egypt’s demand for electricity is rising at a rapid pace, but the country’s own energy resources are limited and very little room left for increasing the country’s output of hydroelectric energy. Egypt is increasingly looking to nuclear energy as a solution.
Egypt and Russia signed an agreement, on November 19, 2015, under which Russia will build and finance Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, in a ceremony attended by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
In addition, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Russian and Egyptian regulators "in order to facilitate further development of the nuclear infrastructure" required for the project. The documents specified matters including nuclear fuel supply for the planned reactors, as well as responsibilities concerning their operation, maintenance and repair. The intergovernmental agreement also addresses questions concerning the management of used nuclear fuel, personnel training, and support to Egypt in its development of nuclear standards and regulations.
As a part of the implementation of the agreement, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has approved on May 19, 2016, a loan to be provided by the Russian government to finance the construction of the country’s first nuclear project. The loan will amount to around US $25 billion. The loan, which has a 22-year maturity at an interest rate of three percent, will cover 85 percent of the project’s costs. Egypt will provide the remaining finance.
A media gag order was imposed on December 21, 2015, on reports involving the Dabaa nuclear project in Egypt. According to the order, nothing may be published about the Dabaa nuclear project in Egyptian media without gaining permission from security authorities or the office of the minister of electricity. No clear details have been revealed about the media gag, including the reason behind it or from where the order was issued.
The planned plant would be located at an existing nuclear site in Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast, west of Alexandria. The agreement envisages a power plant with four reactors producing 1,200 megawatts each. Along with the reactors, the plant will also have desalination capacities. The project will be completed in 2022.
Milestones in the Egypt – Russia nuclear deal
On February 10, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi declared that the two countries plan to build Egypt's first nuclear power plant together. Egyptian president El-Sisi told reporters that memorandums of understanding had been signed on the plant's construction.
On February 14, 2015, a delegation of Egyptian nuclear power experts and officials headed to Moscow to meet with Russian officials for talks on the Egyptian nuclear power-generation program to be implemented in partnership with Russia.
The delegation in Russia included the head of Egypt’s Nuclear Power Plants Authority, Khalil Yaso, the head of the Egypt’s Atomic Energy Authority, Atef El-Kadim, and the deputy president of Egypt's Nuclear and Radiological Regulatory Authority, Walid Zeidan, in addition to officials from the ministry of electricity. The delegation visited nuclear energy training centers and nuclear power plants in Moscow.
In October 2015, Anton Moskvin, Rosatom's overseas vice president, announced that talks for a contract to build a nuclear power station in Egypt had reached their final stages. He said that the deal was expected to be signed by the end of the year and the project will be completed in 2022.
In November 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has asked Prime Minster Sherif Ismail, Minster of Electricity Mohamed Shaker, Minister of Finance Hani Qadry, and the head of the financial affairs authority for Egypt's armed forces, to finalize all the legal and technical procedures in order to implement a Russian bid to establish a nuclear power plant in Egypt.
Only a week later, Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom, arrived to Cairo to discuss final procedures related to the project.
In April 2016, Russian state nuclear firm Rosatom announced that it had opened an office in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. The office will help oversee the company’s many nuclear power projects in the Middle East.
The motivations and capabilities
Egypt has experienced periods of electricity shortages in recent years, at times causing frequent blackouts but the growing need for energy is not the only motivation behind Egypt’s interest in a nuclear power program.
Egypt sees itself as the leader of the Arab world; therefore a decision to pursue nuclear energy serves political purposes domestically as well as internationally. Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear activities could elicit a regional nuclear race, as Tehran’s traditional rivals in the Middle East – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states – could counter the Iranian threat with nuclear programs of their own.
Egypt and the Middle East nuclear-weapons free zone
Past nuclear endeavors have left Egypt with an experienced group of physicists and engineers and a number of universities capable of training a new generation of nuclear scientists.
Since 1974, Egypt has taken the initiative of proposing to render the Middle East nuclear-weapons free zone, calling all countries in the region without exception to join the NPT. In April 1990, Egypt took the initiative to render the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference established a multinational mechanism to work on making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone. This mechanism, however, has stalled as a result of the Israeli position. In April 1996, Egypt hosted the conference for signing the declaration on rendering Africa a nuclear-weapons free zone.
Although Egypt signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, it has refused to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which permits spot inspections, as well as treaties banning the possession of chemical and biological weapons.
Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations at Geneva, Amr Ahmed Ramadan called on September 10, 2014, for an international convention to ban the production of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons. Ramadan made the remarks during the closing session of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), 2014 held in Geneva. Also, Ramadan urged to keep the outer space away from armed conflict, reiterating the importance of giving guarantees by the nuclear States not to threaten other non-nuclear countries.
Ramadan expressed disappointment over failure to carry out the results of the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) held on 1995. The review conference endorsed the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process and recognized that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Summary and conclusions
Russia is one of the main non-Arab supporters of El-Sisi’s government and was among the first countries to endorse El-Sisi’s presidential bid in 2014. Dr. Mohammed Badri Egypt's ambassador to Russia said in October 2015, that bilateral relations between both countries have entered the stage of strategic partnership by virtue of the strong relations between both countries' leaders, indicating that these relations are growing in various fields. He pointed out that the growth of these relations serves the interests of both countries and stability in the Middle East, especially with the presence of a common vision on the need to fight terrorism.
The nuclear deal is a significant step in the fast-growing strategic alliance between Egypt and Russia. Egypt and Russia have never been that close since the era of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, referring to the level of economic and military cooperation, which culminated in arm deals and naval maneuvers codenamed "Friendship Bridge 2015".
Russia’s power play is both economic and strategic. Providing and maintaining nuclear reactors as well as fulfilling fueling contracts has economic benefits. The development of long-term ties with Middle Eastern states also serve strategic purposes.
The US would not oppose a nuclear deal for peaceful purposes, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on February 10, 2015. “We support peaceful nuclear power programs as long as obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which Egypt is a signatory and obligations to the IAEA are fully met and the highest international standards regulating security, nonproliferation, export controls, and physical security are strictly followed,” she said.
Israel has long argued that a nuclear Iran would set off a regional nuclear race, as Tehran's traditional rivals in the Middle East – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states – would quickly move to respond to the Iranian nuclear program challenge.
Egypt’s desire for a nuclear program could also be seen as part of the greater Sunni reaction to Iran’s program and what they fear will be a Shia nuclear bomb, which will cast a shadow over the entire region. Iran’s program has already triggered a number of “civilian” nuclear programs in other Sunni Arab countries.