While the world’s attention has focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, other players in the Middle East have been laying their own plans to develop nuclear power to meet future energy needs. Saudi Arabia, the most ambitious of the group, has announced plans to build 16 reactors over the next several decades, providing a projected 15% of the country’s electricity possibly as early as 2032, according to a Saudi government website. The estimated cost of the program: more than $80 billion, according to an analysis of the plans by Ali Ahmad, a research fellow and lecturer on energy policy at Princeton University. Mr. Ahmad says he based his calculation on a roughly $5 billion price tag for each reactor. Saudi officials close to the program declined to comment. Advocates of a Saudi nuclear program say it will be essential for the oil-rich kingdom to preserve its strong and stable economy, environment and standard of living. What’s more, the country’s nuclear ambitions fit the political and diplomatic role it sees for itself in the Middle East as the strategic leader of the Arab world. “There’s a strategic competition going on with Iran,” says Jim Krane, energy researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston. “This is very important for Saudi Arabia.” It is a quest fraught with challenges. In addition to facing huge construction costs and the usual environmental and safety concerns, the desert country lacks a pool of native nuclear-engineering talent, and must come up with vast amounts of water for the plants to operate. Like Iran, it also will have to contend with questions about whether its ambitions are totally peaceful. Mixed energy needs Nuclear energy, however, is increasingly seen as a necessary part of the energy mix for the entire region. For oil importers such as Egypt and Jordan, it offers greater energy security. Oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, also want to diversify their energy mix and keep as much oil as possible available for export. These wealthier countries with their more advanced economies face growing demand for air-conditioning and fresh water as well, needs currently met largely with desalination. Plans for nuclear power in the Arab Mideast go back to 2006, when the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—began to study the feasibility for a nuclear program to help serve the region’s domestic electricity and desalination needs. ENLARGE The U.A.E. began construction on a 5.6-gigawatt power plant at Barakah near Abu Dhabi in 2012. The first of four reactors is scheduled to begin operation in 2017. The three other reactors are scheduled to begin operating by 2020, according to the World Nuclear Association. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with France, South Korea, China, Argentina and Russia, according to the website of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, or K.A. CARE, which was established by the Saudi government in 2010 to support the development of nuclear and renewable energy in Saudi Arabia. French energy companies Areva SA and EDF SA have agreed to help train workers and help develop a Saudi supply chain. The French and Saudi governments in June signed an agreement to study the feasibility of building two power reactors. South Korea back in March signed a memorandum of understanding to study the feasibility of building two small to midsize reactors. Cities in the desert Some observers see a compelling need for nuclear power in Saudi Arabia, whose population is increasingly moving to modern cities in the desert, where air conditioning and desalination are in great demand. Nuclear energy also could help free up more oil for export and eliminate the need to import natural gas. The nation generated 45% of its electricity from natural gas and 55% from oil as of 2012, according to the International Energy Agency. The recent collapse of oil prices could be a concern for the government’s ability to sustain its nuclear-building program. In August, the country began issuing about $5 billion of bonds to make up for its budget shortfall as a result of the decline in oil exports’ value. “If oil prices are low, then financing the construction of 16 nuclear reactors at the same time, with potential cost overruns, might be an issue, even for a rich country like Saudi Arabia,” says Princeton’s Mr. Ahmad. But, like many of its neighbors, having an autocratic government will help in terms of the centralized decision-making and the security infrastructures required for such energy systems. One of the first issues facing not just the Saudi government but all of the region’s powers considering a nuclear-energy program is the general lack of native nuclear engineers, plant operators and waste-disposal experts. Each country faces a choice of either importing that talent or rapidly developing the skills domestically. “It is like the question of the chicken and the egg,” says Anne Starz, an expert on nuclear energy development at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.A.E., with a long tradition of relying on foreign workers, is importing the necessary talent. A South Korean-led workforce is designing and building the plant at Barakah. Developing local talent Saudi Arabia is taking a much slower approach. The kingdom aims to train a largely local workforce to run its plants, says Noura Youssef Mansouri, a Saudi energy expert and strategy and marketing manager with Areva in Riyadh. King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah has launched a program to teach nuclear engineering. Meanwhile, the country also is sending scientists to train in France and other countries with long experience in nuclear energy. Just as serious as the shortage of engineers, meanwhile, is the scarcity of water needed for cooling the nuclear reactors. A typical nuclear power plant requires 800,000 cubic meters of water per megawatt of power produced.