Going Nuclear: An Arab Oppenheimer?

An Arab response to Iranian nuclear energy ambitions should be dictated by wisdom and not by emotion.

    Developments like Abu Dhabi's Masdar City - a monumental project of urban sustainability - are key in stimulating the imagination of potential Arab innovators of the future [EPA] 

    The response of Arab states to Iran’s bid to join the nuclear club can be best described as reactionary. Perhaps such rejoinders divulge fear - or perhaps they smack of envy. Whatever the case, Arabs are ill-advised to apply emotion where wisdom is needed.

    Unrelated developments throughout history have often diverged to create circumstances that breed human creativity, whether through necessity or an enhanced environment. Without falling into the Orientalist trap of banding the Arab Middle East  (AME) into a monolithic mass of homogeneity, I sincerely believe developments in the region are creating the necessity for a new progressive approach. There is a need to contend with traumas domestically and from within the International system: the AME is crying out for its own Oppenheimer.

    Solar revolution and scientific attainment

    Now, this isn’t a call to produce an assembly line of nuclear physicists or develop a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the Oppenheimer metaphor refers to stimulation and pursuit of scientific knowledge, to revisit a past cultural tradition where the reverence of higher learning was deeply enshrined. 

    The age of oil will be increasingly passing. Arab states, along with Iran and other nations, are correct to be seeking preparation for a post-oil age. The Arabian Peninsula may be the prime setting for a solar revolution: there is an abundance of financial and physical resources. Many pro-environment consultants complain about the lack of political will both in Europe and the United States to undertake such projects en masse. However, rentier economies in the Gulf are hardly overflowing with big energy lobbyists preventing pro-environment legislation from being established - one has to look no further than Abu Dhabi's Masdar City. Yet it must also be stated that most forms of scientific endeavour produce unforeseen positive offshoots.

    No matter how alarming the expenditure on researching and developing military hardware, many functional externalities have been produced. I am not advocating such a dehumanising use of capital! Pursuing nuclear power may seem contradictory to the pursuit of solar power, but the region must primarily focus its ‘energy’ on scientific advancement. The pursuit of nuclear power may spur on other developments, which could take the region into a new age defined by innovation.

    Arab reactions & reactors

    Going nuclear may be more burdensome than rewarding. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf, both rich and poor Arab governments have placed orders for nuclear reactors. Each nation – rightly or wrongly – is scrambling to catch up to the Iranians by going nuclear.

    Gamal Mubarak is promoting the revival of Egypt’s nuclear programme; Shaykh Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah sees (in emulation of Iran) a solution to power shortage in Lebanon. The Saudis have their own plans for purchasing reactors, and may even insist on uranium enrichment since Iran is already on the case.

    The rush for nuclear reactors may be ill-thought. Nuclear programmes demand scientific, political, moral and environmental responsibilities. They come with hefty costs and benefits, but also liabilities, and these must be accounted for. The small geography and proximity of tiny states with dozens of reactors may prove more calamitous than Iran seeking to acquire nuclear capability. Also, the serious liabilities of incidents (as in Chernobyl) within such small surface areas render national borders meaningless: nuclear radiation travels in all directions. Oil spills may be cleaned and controlled before they spread further afield – radiation leaks cannot.

    Accidents such as those on Egyptian rails and ferries are reminders of the lag in high standards of health and safety across the Arab geography. Egypt is planning the construction of eight reactors over the next 20 years in order to add up to 60,000 megawatts to its current electric generation capacity, but there are questions about the suitability of the chosen site. Despite endorsement from the country’s National Power Plants Authority, its potential impact on tourism, (the site is near Alexandria) along with the potential danger to neighbouring populations, warrants further debate. 

    Investment in indigenous intelligence

    Of the tiny Gulf Co-operation Council states, only Saudi Arabia has the surface area necessary for having such installations. Plus, if the GCC is serious about going nuclear, isn’t this an opportunity for collective ownership, management, and benefit from nuclear research and energy? This is a time when the utility and viability of a sustainable community of interests is put to the test!

    Other questions beg answers. Could a GCC nuclear future be realised without the necessary human resources and scientific know-how? Most fundamentally, all Arab states must not ask why Iran is going nuclear. More appropriately - and I say this with the following paragraph in mind - they should be asking themselves why they don't have the ability to go nuclear.

    The answer lies in education and scientific attainment. Where is the equivalent pool of Arab scientists that Iran possesses today? The way forward is more universities and research for the purpose of delivering a more creative Arab future. Emphasis on science and technology will lead to the peaceful, safe and environmentally sound development of alternative sources of energy.

    Hints at this future lie in the kinds of universities in Qatar (Education City) and Saudi Arabia (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) that have opened up. Arabs cannot afford to lag behind by simply remaining consumers of technology. Nuclear energy must not be treated like a weapons system that is bought whole and transplanted with foreign know-how. It requires ongoing indigenous creativity and research.

    Interdependence not war

    Iran going nuclear must not alarm the Arab world. Israel has a bomb. So what?

    Nuclear weapons are an unrealistic option - suicide - whether committed by Israelis, Iranians or anyone else.

    Arab Gulf states, in particular, must heed history by not rushing into a conflictual solution against Iran as they did when they supported Saddam. That war was executed with their money and threatened their own sovereignty and security. Hasn’t the Prophet of Islam said that the faithful is never bitten from the same ‘hole’ (or snake) twice?!

    Ideally, Arabs and Iranians would co-operate in peaceful nuclear research so that the region may use local resources and indigenous know-how for joint development. Iranian and Arab knowledge once founded a brilliant synthesis in Sibawayh or Avicenna;  Russians and Americans, former adversaries, today co-operate in space research and development. Thus, a regime for peaceful interdependence can potentially unhinge the realist war-mongering ‘paradigm’ coming from within and without the region.

    Arabs can design their own projects, and the US, EU, Russia, China and India can then add technological value, diplomatic good will and overall guidance. Such initiatives may constitute the basis for a pluralist and liberal vision for refashioning the region’s international relations. This, in turn, will lead to a shifting of emphasis from selfish statism and conflict to communal interests and co-operation.

    Postscript: Going nuclear-free 

    Ideally, the whole world goes nuclear-free, and people do not have to live with the scenarios of ‘what if’. For the Western world, if non-proliferation matters, then de-nuclearization should be made universally applicable and mandatory. Unfortunately, the persistence of real-politik makes this nothing more than a pipe dream. With the push towards nuclear energy in the region, my hope among all hopes is that a new dawn of ethical innovation is borne out of this precarious pursuit.

    Morality and wisdom must bond with science. As Oppenheimer discovered after the first Atomic bomb test, quoting the Hinduism’s sacred text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one…Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    That is an evil not worth a million ‘Islamic’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Jewish’, ‘Christian’ or ‘secular’ bombs’.


    Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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