BRAKA, United Arab Emirates—The United Arab Emirates, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is a land of firsts. Dubai, its richest city, has the first indoor ski slope and the first “seven star” luxury hotel. Abu Dhabi, its capital, has the first roller coaster capable of traveling from zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds; now it’s building the first branch of the Louvre Museum outside of France.
Here at Braka, a windswept patch of desert 167 miles west of Abu Dhabi, a very different kind of first is taking shape. With American support, the Emirati government is building the Arab world’s first—and, for the moment, only—nuclear-power plant. On a recent afternoon, workers in hard hats and safety vests used yellow bulldozers to excavate deep pits, depositing the earth into a fleet of open-backed trucks. Other workers cut dirt roads into the sand and put the finishing touches on a campus of two-story office buildings and dormitories. New creature comforts for thousands of employees are coming online. The South Korean managers are golf fanatics, so the site has an outdoor driving range near the soccer pitch put in for the Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese construction workers. Several dining rooms serve kimchi and other Korean staples produced on-site by a team of imported chefs. A large red flag, flapping gently in the wind, marks the spot where the plant’s nuclear reactor will sit.
Talk of Middle Eastern nuclear energy typically sets off alarm bells in Washington, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, because a nation with a civilian program could theoretically become a nation with a nuclear weapon. The United States and its allies have slapped economic sanctions on Tehran to prevent such a thing; officials here and around the Persian Gulf hope that the Americans or the Israelis will launch air strikes to destroy Iran’s facilities before the year is out.
The nuclear plant at Braka is a different story. The U.A.E. has already volunteered not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, the steps necessary to build a weapon. In exchange for this vow, Washington is giving technical advice, clearing the way for Emirati nuclear engineers to study at American universities, and allowing U.S. firms like Westinghouse to build Emirati plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which shares the American belief that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, says that the U.A.E.’s plans are transparent and civilian. The Braka plant, in other words, isn’t just a way to cut fossil-fuel use. It is meant to be an object lesson for Iran and every other country in the region: Come clean; if your program is verifiably peaceful, we will support you.
The Americans who helped set up Braka hope that others are watching. The Emiratis, of course, are one target: Seeing how the international community accepts their civilian plan, they should never want to weaponize it. The Saudis are the more important target for this message. Iran is their enemy, and it could soon have a nuke. Now Saudi Arabia is planning its own nuclear program, and it will have to decide what kind. Tehran offers one model; Abu Dhabi, another. One path could keep nations in the world’s most volatile region from chasing the world’s most dangerous weapons; the other could trigger an Arab nuclear-arms race as Middle East nations work to build—or buy—nuclear bombs of their own.
THE COMING ARMS RACE?
Iran’s Shiite government has long vied with the Sunni rulers of wealthy Gulf nations for regional influence and control. Their shadow conflict is picking up steam as Iran closes in on a nuke. In Palestine, Gulf countries support the moderate government in the West Bank, while Tehran backs Hamas in Gaza. When Shiites launched pro-democracy protests last fall in Sunni-governed Bahrain, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of fomenting the unrest and sent troops to prevent a pro-Iranian Shiite takeover by quashing the uprising. Tehran funnels money, weapons, and sophisticated eavesdropping equipment to the embattled Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s strongest Arab ally, while Gulf states offer similar support to the rebels working to oust him. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Israel share intelligence about Iran’s nuclear facilities, officials with direct knowledge of the talks say.
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a move that would prevent the Persian Gulf nations from exporting oil. Some analysts believe that the Gulf states would allow Israeli warplanes to refuel on their territory before launching strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Gulf officials say they aren’t worried that Tehran would attack with a nuclear warhead or give one to a terrorist group. Instead, they fear that nukes would allow Iran to intervene in neighboring countries with impunity, confident that Arab governments wouldn’t risk pushing back too strongly. If more riots break out in Bahrain, for instance, Saudi Arabia would have to think twice about sending troops in to crush the Shiite protests.
This article appears in the February 4, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.