Saudi Arabia’s path to nuclear power

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King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy in Riyadh.
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Barakah, the UAE’s first nuclear power plant.
Updated 05 August 2018

Saudi Arabia’s path to nuclear power

  • Saudi Arabia has to find ways to diversify and increase its power production capacity for economic growth and development
  • Saudi Arabia is selecting finalists from five countries — the US, China, Russia, France and South Korea

DUBAI: Faced with surging energy demand for economic growth, Saudi Arabia is turning to nuclear power to meet a twin challenge — how to diversify its electricity-generating mix while reducing reliance on fossil fuels. And with electricity demand in the country growing by 8 to 10 percent annually, compared with less than 1 percent in Europe, experts say the move is timely. Last week, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team of experts concluded a 12-day mission to the Kingdom to review its development of infrastructure for a nuclear power program. The review, which ended on July 24, was carried out at the invitation of the Saudi government. “Nuclear is an important way to meet the fast-growing demand for energy in the region, taking into consideration a wish to diversify the energy sources and not rely solely on oil and gas,” said John Bernhard, former Danish ambassador to the IAEA.
“Besides, the use of nuclear power is a significant element in an energy strategy which considers the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and implement commitments concerning climate change. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are beneficial from a climate change point of view, but will often not be sufficient to cover large energy demands.”
The Kingdom plans to build two large nuclear power reactors as part of a program delivering as many as 16 nuclear power plants over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. It has projected 17 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2032 to provide 15 percent of the power then, along with more than 40 GW of solar capacity.
So far, Saudi Arabia has identified two possible sites for power stations, on the Gulf coast at Umm Huwayd and Khor Duweihin.
Plans for small reactors for desalination are also well advanced. “IAEA missions are of crucial importance when preparing for the introduction of nuclear power programs, especially in so-called newcomer states — those with little or no experience regarding nuclear power,” Bernhard said.
“IAEA experts can provide useful advice technically and with regard to nuclear safety and security.
This is of great value both for the nuclear newcomer and the international community.”cSaudi Arabia is selecting finalists from five countries — the US, China, Russia, France and South Korea —that it invited earlier this year to bid on a project to build the two plants. The selection of a winning bid and the signing of contracts are expected by the end of 2018.
“Saudis have recognized that it is important for them to develop a nuclear power program,” said Lady Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. “The days of oil and gas are waning, and it is not appropriate for any country to rely on one source of energy — more and more of the world’s population is worrying about climate change.”
Nuclear is a carbon-free techno-logy that provides continuous generation. “Even if a country is investing heavily in renewables, they have the problem of only being available when the sun shines and the wind blows,” said Judge, who is a member of the International Advisory Board for the development of nuclear energy in the UAE.
“Accordingly, back-up generation is needed to assure a continuous supply of energy. To me, it seems the Saudis, like Abu Dhabi, are perfectly situated to build a new nuclear power plant — they have the backing of the government and the funds to build a first-class plant, and they understand that it is inappropriate today to rely solely on oil.
“They also have the resources to bring in international experts and to conduct an effective public outreach program to educate the population about the benefits of nuclear energy.”
Judge said that IAEA missions provide an assurance that the construction, operation and safety culture will be of the highest standard. “The IAEA is an independent appraiser and adviser, and it helps countries to appropriately plan and design their new project.”
The move falls in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which is based on diversifying its economy away from oil and gas. And with desalination and residential cooling set as the two largest uses of power, and desalinated water demand expected to double in the next decade, experts say that it is more profitable for the country to sell oil and gas while using alternative resources, such as nuclear, for water desalination.
Environmentally, nuclear is also expected to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
“Saudi Arabia has to find ways to diversify and increase its power production capacity for economic growth and development,” said Dr. Peter Bode, former associate professor in nuclear science and technology at the Delft University in the Netherlands.
“Nuclear power is one of the options in the power mix that could also contain wind energy and solar, but these systems cannot take over the major role in the power mix. Moreover, these are also somehow much more vulnerable to damage, like sabotage, and even the effects of climate change.”
He said nuclear power is a proven technology with high reliability and safety — a nuclear power plant typically operates for about 60 to 70 years, and provides jobs for about 1,000 people over that period. “Wind and solar energy are options for local and domestic energy production, but not to provide the needs of industry.”
In 2010, a Saudi royal decree said that the development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom’s growing requirements for energy. The country formed the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE).
In July last year, the Cabinet approved the establishment of the National Project for Atomic Energy, and new financial and administrative regulations for KA-CARE, which was set up in Riyadh.
Several years ago, a study by the IAEA explored the economics of nuclear power in the Middle East.
“As long as the future international oil market price was above $60 to $65 per barrel, nuclear power made sense,” said Holger Rogner, an Atomic Reporters director, energy economist and former head of the IAEA’s energy planning section.
“The domestic price of oil used for electricity generation and desalination is highly subsidized, so if they replace electricity generation with nuclear power, and sell this oil at market prices abroad, the difference in revenue would basically pay for the nuclear power plant. There are clear thresholds when things make sense,” he said.


An ongoing debate: Shops closing for prayer in Saudi Arabia

Updated 19 January 2020

An ongoing debate: Shops closing for prayer in Saudi Arabia

  • The issue has been under discussion in many settings among members of Saudi society as of late

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has recently announced allowing commercial activities to function for 24 hours, in a new string of promised boosts of business and provide services for all. While the change solves many problems, such as congestion and loss of potential income, many Saudis still debate whether or not it will include the custom of shops closing during prayer time, five times a day. 

A custom that has uniquely defined Saudi Arabia among all Muslim countries, which typically require shops to close only during the weekly Friday prayers, this practice has long been discussed and disputed in society. 

For over 30 years, commercial businesses in Saudi Arabia have shut and locked their doors as soon as the first call of prayer is heard. Cars would queue waiting petrol stations to open, pharmacies were closed, restaurants and supermarkets as well with patrons and visitors forced to wait outside in a manner deemed inconvenient to most people. Prior to the recent reforms which have checked the powers of the now regulated Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), or religious police as they were commonly known, officers of the CPVPV had the power to arrest and punish shopkeepers for even delaying closing their stores for a few minutes. Punishments ranged from detention, lashing and even deportation if the shop attendant was not Saudi. 

The debate to keep shops and businesses open has been a topic of discussion in many settings amongst members of Saudi society as of late. From Shoura Council members, to businessmen and women and everyday ordinary citizens, with many wondering if the law would stand for all hours of the day.

However, the bigger question is being asked by a new generation of the country’s youth, which form the majority of the population of the Kingdom: Why is it that Saudi Arabia is the only country that enforced this kind of practice, as opposed to just Friday prayers? 

Executive regulations

In 1987, the executive regulations of the CPVPV were issued by the General President of the commission, and the second paragraph of the first article cited the following: “As prayer is the pillar of religion and its hiatus, then the members of the commission must ensure its performance at the specified times in mosques, and urge people to promptly respond to the call for prayer, and they must ensure that shops and stores are closed, and that sales are not done during prayer time.”

Speaking to Arab News, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, the former director of the CPVPV in Makkah, said that the document allowed members of the religious police to take the necessary measures, and many opted to apply what should have only been applicable to Friday prayers to all prayers of the day. 

“This second paragraph of the first article of the Commission’s executive regulations was a discretionary procedure that was not based on a system, as the executive regulations of the Commission are issued by the General President of CPVPV, and its body system does not oblige closing shops during prayer times,” said Al-Ghamdi. “It became a practice that has been established by the Commission, according to the second paragraph of the first article without relying on an established order.”

Dr. Issa Al-Ghaith, a judge, Islamic scholar, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council and the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue, has spoken about the matter a number of times. In a recent article published in Makkah newspaper on Jan. 1, 2020, Dr. Al-Ghaith explained that there is no religious or legal base.

“There is no legal base for closing shops for prayer after amending the bylaws of the authority, noting that forcing shops to close their doors and people to pray right at the beginning of prayer time, and to do this in a mosque, stands no ground neither in Shariah nor in law,” said Dr. Al-Ghaith.

“It is rather a breach of both of them, and an infringement on people’s religious rights (right of Ijtihad and freedom to follow a reference) and worldly rights (freedom of movement, shopping, benefitting of services round the clock without being forced to abide by judicial matters subject to conflict and differences).”

Dr. Issa Al-Ghaith

Religion and laws aside though, it seems there is no clear verdict within society on whether or not the practice of closing shops during prayer times should continue or not.

Speaking to Arab News, a number of female retail workers at one of Jeddah’s biggest shopping malls told of the benefit of closing shops during prayer times. The group of females who requested to stay anonymous told Arab News that it’s not all that it seems to be when shops close.

“Many believe we actually take a break and lounge around for the 20-40 minutes when stores close for prayer times. Rarely do we have that freedom to be honest,” said 25-year-old S.K., a Saudi working in the store for 7 months now. “The mess that customers leave behind is too much to handle during regular open store hours so we take advantage of the time we have and reorganize the store, clean up and replace all clothes on the racks.”

“I agree with my colleague,” said 29-year-old M.A. “We don’t mind the closing hours as things get really hectic especially on holidays and as you can see now during the sale. So we do take the opportunity sometimes and either try to relax in the quiet before we finish whatever it is we need done during that time. We understand people’s frustrations but it helps us.”

“I don’t have the luxury of time unfortunately,” said Rawan Zahid, a mother of three girls and a worker at a private company. “I live close to an hour away from my office and my youngest is 4 months old so I don’t have the luxury of time to go shop after work as the call for Maghreb (sunset) prayers are called and I would rather go home and spend some time with my daughters.”

While juggling her job and family life, Zahid believes that it’s difficult to sustain this for long. “It’s unreasonable in my opinion,” Zahid said. “I think it’s too much of a burden on many people especially those who work long hours of the day. For those who don’t have help to care for their children, it’s very difficult to run simple errands and it’s extremely tiresome.”