ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – The United Arab Emirates, which sits on one-tenth of the world's oil reserves, is likely to be the first Middle Eastern country to have a nuclear energy program.
Abu Dhabi, the UAE's capital, has already appointed an ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency even before it has built a nuclear facility.
The UAE lies in the heart of a region some say could be on course for a nuclear arms buildup. The Emirates is across the Persian Gulf from Iran, which is currently under investigation by the IAEA for its suspect uranium enrichment program.
In an 11-month period between February 2006 and January 2007, at least 13 countries in the Middle East announced new or revived plans to explore or pursue civilian nuclear energy.
Nuclear watchdog groups say energy programs have the potential to be converted easily to a secretive weapons program, and they point to Iran.
"Some people have been concerned with this explosion of interest in nuclear energy in the Middle East, an area that has seen at least three countries violate their (Non-Proliferation Treaty) agreements and pursue nuclear weapons," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
But Fitzpatrick said the UAE looks set to follow a different path if it does go ahead with its nuclear program. It has committed to full transparency and plans to import its nuclear fuel, which would be a barrier to building nuclear weapons.
"The UAE has accepted several conditions that would create a strong wall between nuclear power on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other," he said. "They've said they will accept full transparency … and they would not pursue any sensitive fuel-cycle technologies," which are necessary in the development of nuclear weapons.
Yet the UAE's nuclear connections have not always been so benign.
Dubai, one of seven emirates that make up the UAE, was once "the central headquarters of the A.Q. Khan black-market network," according to Fitzpatrick. Khan was the Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold weapons technology and equipment to places like Iran and North Korea.
As Iran continues to enrich uranium at its nuclear facility in Bushehr, some worry that an Iranian threat could push other nations in the region past the pursuit of only energy.
"If Iran emerges as a nuclear power, military nuclear power, we will not live under intimidation and the pressure from our neighbors without finding some sort of response or answer," said Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser and security expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
But a government source in Abu Dhabi said that the UAE has committed to enough checks and oversight to prohibit the enrichment of uranium or the production of a bomb, and that its nuclear program is needed to address growing energy needs.
The UAE's current oil reserves should last for about a century, but energy usage is expected to double by 2015 and the population of the Arabian peninsula to double by the year 2050.
"If we look at the overall strategy of the UAE, we find to create energy is very high on their list," said Riad Kahwaji, a political and military analyst. "They are investing tremendously in green energy alternative sources."
And with export regulations tightened and the ports of the UAE strictly controlled, Fitzpatrick said Abu Dhabi was now setting an example for the region.
"The UAE is standing as a kind of model and it's creating a positive cascade and it's also a strong contrast to Iran," he said. "The UAE and Iran are on opposite ends of the spectrum here."
The UAE's deal is unlikely to influence how Iran does business when it comes to nuclear energy, but if Abu Dhabi is seen to reap the benefits of much international cooperation in its nuclear program, it could send a signal to neighboring countries.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have both signed memorandums of understanding with the United States signaling that they have no intention of pursuing enrichment or reprocessing technologies and also that they would sign up to the IAEA's additional protocols.