IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says that nuclear power plans will take 10-15 years to develop.
Arab Gulf states may need a decade or more to train experts and carry out studies before they can develop nuclear energy, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Thursday.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed in February to cooperate on a feasibility study on regional plans for a nuclear energy programme.
The GCC, which groups Arab countries in the world's top oil and gas exporting region, said in December it had decided to set up the joint civil atomic programme, raising concerns in the West that the Arab states may want to protect themselves if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and sparking fears of an arms race.
IAEA's chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Gulf states wanted to use nuclear energy for desalination, power generation and health care.
"Preparation in the long-term for the use of nuclear energy in desalination and power generation may not happen tomorrow but it may happen be within 10 years or 15 years," ElBaradei told reporters after meeting GCC officials in Riyadh.
"Building up national expertise that will be ready and able to use this technology ... will be vital."
ElBaradei defended the bloc's right to nuclear energy, dismissing doubts raised by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in December on the motives for plan in a region rich in oil and gas.
"Nothing prevented ... the United States ... or the Soviet Union ... from developing nuclear energy while they were producing large quantities of oil," he said.
He said he expected the IAEA to reply in a month to GCC proposals to pave the way for the first in a series of studies that would define the region's needs and set a timetable.
The study will then be presented to GCC leaders at their summit in Oman's capital Muscat later this year.
The GCC has said it needed alternative sources of power as demand for electricity was rising 6% a year in the region.
"There is an urgent need to develop national expertise. The creation of a nuclear reactor dedicated to research may be essential ... for the development of national experts," ElBaradei added.
GCC Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman al-Attiyah said the bloc would remain committed to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and pledged transparency in the nuclear energy development process.