ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- The United Arab Emirates, one of the top oil exporters, is leading the race to develop nuclear power in the Arab world and has awarded contracts worth $2 billion to provide, convert and enrich uranium.
For now, only the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have the political clout and the financial reserves to achieve nuclear power programs that will transform their economies. They also have the backing of the United States for this strategic geopolitical transition in return for pledges not to militarize their nuclear programs.
All three countries are bitterly opposed to Iran's nuclear drive. Tehran swears it's purely for peaceful purposes but the Islamic Republic's adversaries insist it masks a clandestine effort to develop nuclear weapons.
The Saudis' program, costing $100 billion, is by far the most ambitious, with 16 nuclear reactors planned by 2030, the first scheduled to start producing electricity by 2019.
But it's trailing the Emirates, which launched its program in 2009 and plans to build four 1,400-megawatt reactors. The first is scheduled to deliver electricity by 2017, with the other three coming on stream at a rate of one a year until 2020.
The uranium fuel contracts were signed by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Persian Gulf federation and its economic powerhouse, with six companies Aug. 15.
They are ConverDyn of the United States, Uranium One of Canada, Urenco and Rio Tinto of Britain, Russia's Tenex and French energy giant Areva, and indicate the Emirates is spreading its supply of nuclear fuel among the world's main suppliers as a hedge against future geopolitical changes.
"It's a good balanced move," observed Robin Mills, an energy economist with Manaar Consulting of Dubai, the Emirates' financial hub.
ENEC, the state nuclear agency, signed a $20 billion contract to build the first reactor to a consortium led by a South Korean enterprise, Korea Electric Power Corp., which beat out more seasoned nuclear power producers in the United States, France and Japan.
The U.S. Import-Export Bank authorized a $2 billion direct loan to the Emirates' Barakah One Co. to purchase U.S. equipment and construction services to build the initial Emirates' reactor, which will be the first nuclear power plant built on the Arabian Peninsula.
The reactors will all be built along the sparsely populated Barakah region of the gulf coast about 140 miles from Abu Dhabi near the Saudi border. Between them they will produce 5,600 megawatts gross electricity.
By comparison, Saudi Arabia's 20 reactors should produce 41GW within 20 years, with geothermal and waste-to-energy systems providing another 4GW.
At present, the kingdom's electricity output is 52GW generation by 79 power stations.
Along with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, other Arab states such as Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan have said they will pursue nuclear programs aimed at boosting electricity production to meet a steadily growing demand caused by swelling populations and industrialization.
But their prospects are poor. The Middle East Economic Digest observed recently that "it is unlikely any of them will fulfill those ambitions. Qatar is too small to house a nuclear reactor, the others fail in terms of political stability and financial resources.
"Kuwait has the cash, but has been through eight governments in the past six years ... Bahrain continues to face destabilizing protests by its majority Shiite population and its budget is already in deficit," the weekly noted.
"Jordan's nuclear plans have been scuppered by a vote in Parliament" as "too hazardous and costly ... Elections in Egypt have not brought political stability. Nor is there any immediate hope of transforming the state's perilous-looking finances."
For the Saudis, nuclear power is becoming increasingly vital. At present it's having to use increasing amounts of oil for domestic electricity generation. That means less crude for export, which is backbone of the Saudi economy.
Some experts say if the kingdom's current energy consumption growth rate of 7 percent a year continues, it'll be burning some 8 million barrels per day within 20 years.
That's about two-thirds of its current production level.
The state oil company, Saudi Aramco, puts the figure at 3 million bpd by 2028, but that's still a big problem as the world's leading oil exporter uses up more and more energy at home.