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US lawmakers introduce bill to stop Saudi Arabia from obtaining nuclear weapons

Measure would stop 'most US arms sales' to the kingdom if it receives help in building nuclear facilities that do not meet IAEA standards
Riyadh inked deals with Beijing in 2012 and 2017 for cooperation on a number of nuclear energy projects.
Riyadh signed deals with Beijing in 2012 and 2017 for cooperation on a number of nuclear energy projects (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

A group of US lawmakers have introduced legislation that seeks to stop the possibility of Saudi Arabia obtaining a nuclear weapon, after reports surfaced last year that China had secretly assisted Riyadh to expand its nuclear programme.

The bill, titled, The Saudi WMD Act, aims to "take steps to impede access to sensitive technologies that could pave the way to Saudi Arabia acquiring a nuclear weapon," according to a press release announcing the legislation on Thursday.

It was introduced in the Senate by senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley, and introduced in the House of Representatives by congressmen Ted Lieu and Joaquin Castro.

"Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes is one of the gravest threats to the security of the American people and to our partners around the world," Merkley said in a statement.

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"If Saudi Arabia is working to undermine the global nonproliferation and arms control regime, with the help of China or anybody else, the US must respond." 

Markey said the bill "requires greater transparency into Saudi Arabia's efforts to build out a ballistic missile and civilian nuclear program".

If passed, the measure would require the Biden administration to determine whether any foreign person or country has transferred or exported to Saudi Arabia a Category One item under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal political understanding that aims to limit the amount of missile proliferation worldwide.

A Category One item would include unmanned aerial vehicle systems such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and target drones that are capable of delivering a payload of at least 500kg to a range of at least 300km.

If such an entity is found, the bill would require the White House to sanction them.

The bill would also terminate "most US arms sales to Saudi Arabia" if it was found that the kingdom received help in building a nuclear fuel cycle facility not under the standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Saudi Arabia has not signed up to the same restrictions to nuclear proliferation that other countries have, and the country has only a limited safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

Saudi nuclear projects

For years, Saudi Arabia has been trying to diversify its energy pool so that it can export more of its oil, rather than selling it domestically at subsidised prices.

Riyadh signed deals with Beijing in 2012 and 2017 for cooperation on a number of nuclear energy projects, and the kingdom has been working on its first two commercial nuclear reactors, which will total 2.8 gigawatts.

The increasing nuclear partnerships between the two countries have been a cause of concern for the US. Last August, American intelligence agencies had been assessing reports that China is secretly helping Saudi Arabia expand its nuclear programme.

The agencies analysed suspected collaboration between the two countries at an undeclared site in the kingdom, close to a solar-panel production area.

The Wall Street Journal also reported last summer that another undisclosed site in the country's northwest was being used to extract uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, a further step towards the development of nuclear fuel that could put the kingdom on a path to developing nuclear weapons.

A month later, the Guardian reported that Saudi Arabia likely has enough mineable uranium ore reserves to pave the way for the domestic production of nuclear fuel, citing a confidential report by Chinese geologists.

In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the country has no plans to pursue a nuclear bomb, but if Iran were to develop one, then it would follow suit "as soon as possible".

Under the previous Donald Trump administration, the US had given several authorisations to American companies to share sensitive nuclear power information.

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