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Will the UAE’s Barakah Project Launch New Era of Peaceful Nuclear Power in the Middle East?

| Aug. 27, 2020

The recent operation of the reactor at the United Arab Emirates’ Barakah power plant is an important development for both the UAE and the Middle East region, as it marks a new step to break out from the deep and harmful reliance on fossil fuels for power generation.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt are following the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran in pursuing nuclear power. In a war-torn region where tensions are rising there is concern about where this may lead, even though it is not clear if these projects will ever be realized. Although the Barakah project marks a paradigm shift toward energy diversification in the region, the UAE’s results on the nuclear front may not be easily replicated.

The Barakah project in Abu Dhabi has been hailed by the nuclear industry as a major success story and a harbinger of an expanded role for nuclear in the region. While many proposed nuclear projects in the Middle East have been delayed for years — or even decades — bogged down in political and economic issues, the UAE has had the required conditions to see its project to fruition, despite facing its own time and cost overruns. So, what makes the Barakah project different? And what are the factors that have contributed to the progress of the Emirati nuclear power program and hindered other programs in the region? Four major factors helped put the project significantly and distinctively on the map.

Timing of the project was of the essence. When the UAE started its nuclear program in the late 2000s, nuclear power had some economic merit. The cost of renewables was far higher than today’s competitive prices. Since the UAE’s decision, solar power and wind power costs went down by more than 90% and 80%, respectively. In the current environment, renewables are firmly shifting from being an “add-on” power source to a notable contributor to the regional energy mix and a powerful tool of economic diversification that goes beyon power generation.

Despite the UAE’s commitment and thorough planning, arguably supported by the best experts and consultants, Barakah’s first unit took more than eight years in construction and testing. It is, therefore, safe to assume that other countries in the region will need at least that much time to bring their own projects to completion. Considering such a long time frame, and the emerging energy revolution in the region that is powered by cheap renewables and natural gas, it would be very hard to sell a nuclear project anywhere in the region based on economic rationales.

The second factor rests on the social contract the UAE has. In recent years, such contract has been shown to be more elastic than had been widely perceived. This elasticity was primarily shown by the UAE’s successful efforts to push for reforms, such as lifting energy subsidies and introducing value-added taxes. In the nuclear realm, the elasticity in the social contract was supported by the extensive and seemingly effective efforts by the UAE government to sell the nuclear projects to its people. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ahmad, Ali.“Will the UAE’s Barakah Project Launch New Era of Peaceful Nuclear Power in the Middle East?.” Al-Monitor, August 27, 2020.

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