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UAE in line to become first Arab country with nuclear power

Guardian Environment 16th January 2009

The United Arab Emirates took a step yesterday towards becoming the first Arab country to acquire a nuclear capability, a move that could prompt other states to seek to join the club and alter the balance of power in the region.

The Gulf state said it was seeking a nuclear programme for energy, not to produce an atomic weapon. But other Arab countries, if they built reactors, may be more likely to switch from civilian to military use.

The UAE's embassy in Washington said yesterday that Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was scheduled to sign a nuclear co-operation pact with her UAE counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayid al-Nahyan, at the state department.

The pact had been delayed because of protests by members of Congress that it could accelerate nuclear proliferation and add volatility in the region. It will be one of the last acts of the Bush administration, in defiance of concerns raised by Congress.

Arab countries having reactors within the next decade would mean stockpiles of nuclear material accumulating in the region. One estimate is there would be enough to build between 1,000 and 2,000 nuclear bombs.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons capability, though it publicly refuses to confirm this. Iran is suspected by the US, Britain and other countries of also seeking a nuclear weapons capability, but it claims it is only interested in developing nuclear power to meet its energy needs.

The UAE deal will go to Barack Obama to sign off, but his team has not yet expressed a view on it.

Republican members of Congress raised worries that nuclear technology could be smuggled from the UAE to Iran. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, introduced legislation designed to delay the pact. But Sean McCormack, the state department spokesman, argued that the pact would help counter proliferation.

The agreement only came after the UAE agreed to conditions, including signing a protocol that would allow intrusive inspections by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. It has also agreed to import nuclear fuel and not build a uranium enrichment plant that would make it possible to switch from civilian to military use. The UAE hopes to have the reactor working by 2017. British, French and US companies are expected to compete for the contract.

David Albright, an arms control specialist at the Washington-based International Science and International Security, has been among those sceptical of signing a deal, describing the country as "a nuclear smugglers' hub". In November he co-authored a report warning that stocks of nuclear material could accumulate in the Middle East over the next decade which could be used to produce more than 1,700 nuclear bombs.

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