Can Saudi Arabia Fight its Own Fight? History Shows Heavy Reliance on Mercenaries, Militias and the US
During President Trump’s now infamous visit to Saudi Arabia, Washington and Riyadh signed arms deals amounting to almost $110 billion, a move viewed by some as fueling an arms race in an already dangerous Middle East.
In the past decade, it has become clear that there is a Saudi quest to move from a country engaged in proxy wars to one able to achieve its objectives by engaging directly with its own military. Now, after over three years of a failed Saudi-led assault on Yemen, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has threatened to “bring the battle to the heart of Iran.” Having been supervised and trained by the U.S Department of Defense since 1953, is the Saudi Arabian military capable of achieving this goal, and what exactly comprises Saudi Arabia’s military doctrine?
King before Country
Most militaries base their doctrines on the priorities and nature of rule in their country, but there are components that remain fairly consistent regardless of ideological stance. They include lessons gleaned from the past, the military strategy of the state, issues surrounding technical development, and of course, overall national values.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, those values can be summarized by a slogan taught to children starting in elementary school and rooted in the public’s collective conscious:
Allah [God], Al-Malik [the King], Al-Watan [the Nation]”
The order is significant. It’s worth pointing out that a majority of Gulf States, including Kuwait and Qatar, have national slogans based on a concept of “the nation” over the “prince,” giving precedence to the nation over its ruler: “God, the Nation, the Prince.” Saudi Arabia’s national slogan is the first step in the process of presenting the interest of defense of the ruler over the nation and forms the basis of the primary responsibility of those entrusted to protect the state.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s relative youth (the country as we now know it was founded in 1932), there are numerous examples of how her rulers have engaged in war, pursuing a doctrine tied to a heavy reliance on militias and the military influence they wield. This includes
King Abdul Aziz’s military campaigns in the Arabian Peninsula at the onset of the last century into the early 1930s.
In the decades since its establishment, the Kingdom has had almost no reliable experience by which to evaluate the performance of its regular army, with the exception of its previous war on Yemen in the early 1960s, which saw modest participation by the “Saudi National Guards.” Even then, Riyadh relied heavily on support from Yemen’s Mutawakkilite Imamate to achieve its military goals.
In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia months later, Saudi King Fahd made an official request to the United States to bring its troops to the “land of the Two Holy Mosques” to protect his regime from invasion. The Saudis did not have a regular army that could be relied upon; instead, the U.S. Air Force paved the way for Saudi ground forces to enter the border town of Al-Khafji, near Kuwait. The battle there helped Saudi Arabia alleviate some of the growing popular discontent over the presence of U.S. Marines on Saudi soil.
Later, Saudi Arabia’s military weakness would emerge in the 2009 “Saada War” against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The latter were able to take control of several locations and towns inside the Saudi Kingdom, reportedly killing dozens of Saudi soldiers in the ensuing battles.
As for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war on Yemen, launched in March of 2015, the inherent weakness of Saudi ground forces manifested itself clearly through the Gulf kingdom’s heavy reliance on foreign mercenaries to fight on behalf of its armed forces, the failure to progress on fronts adjacent to the border, and the inability of Saudi forces to hold positions and villages, despite support from the Saudi Royal Air Force.
Despite Saudi Arabia failures, it has yet to establish minimum requirements for its regular army, instead relying on a strategy of using outside agents, often armed militias with Wahhabi ideology, to complete missions. This factor, coupled with a failure to invest in domestic weapons production despite the availability of money and raw materials, has left the Saudi military heavily reliant on foreign aid to secure arms, making the country a hugely profitable market for the Western arms dealers.
A history of reliance and dependence
In March of 1929, the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, supported by the British Royal Air Force, was able to defeat the militias he previously relied on to secure territory, and ultimately, the throne. Al-Saud then set about constructing the formation of the forces that would eventually become the core of Saudi Arabia’s regular army following international recognition of his kingdom. He established the so-called “Directorate of Military Affairs” and — in 1939, seven years after Kingdom was established — the “Directorate of the Chief of Staff,” followed by the Saudi Ministry of Defense on November 10, 1943.
During the famous meeting between President Roosevelt and Al-Saud in February of 1945, Roosevelt was asked to send a U.S. military mission to oversee the training of Saudi soldiers. In 1949, General Richard O’Keefe was appointed as the first commander of the U.S training mission, which did not officially start until four years later, after the two parties signed the so-called “Joint Military Cooperation Agreement” in 1951.
The United States Military Training Mission (USMTM) officially began on June 27, 1953. It took up headquarters in Dhahran before moving to its current location in Riyadh’s so-called Iskan Village. “Our mission is to strengthen U.S national security through building the capabilities of the Saudi armed forces to defend our common interests in the Middle East,” reads the mission statement on its website.
On Feb. 8, 1977, the U.S and Saudi Arabia signed a new treaty governing the work of the training mission. Nestled in the third article of that treaty was a clause that left the number of American soldiers and officers that were to join the mission open and subject to change based on the perceived needs of the Saudi Ministry of Defense, the Chairman of the Saudi Staff, and the Pentagon. Article 5 of the treaty described the mission’s function: “USMTM is responsible for providing advisory services in Planning, Organization, Training, Logistics Support and Armament.” USMTM was also given the privilege of requesting arms shipments to the Saudis, within the so-called Military Sales Program.
Under Article 6, U.S. military personnel were firmly entrenched into the structure and performance of Saudi Armed Forces. Under the provision, Washington committed its officers (even after retirement) to refrain from disclosing any details about the nature of the mission or of Saudi military secrets, leaving researchers with scant information. For their part, the Saudis promised to exempt members of the mission from customs duties and taxes; committed themselves to provide suitable housing for the members of the Mission; to bearing the costs of “transport, food, entertainment, furniture and medical services;” and to allowing U.S. military aircraft to land and take off from civilian and military airports without paying fees.
Following the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent liberation of Kuwait, the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an amendment to the treaty that would have increased the U.S’ military footprint in Saudi Arabia. The negotiations failed, as the Saudi regime was in the midst of quelling public outcry over U.S military presence in the Kingdom. After 9/11, and the increase in tensions between Washington and Riyadh that accompanied it, the U.S. considered putting an end to the training mission, but ultimately decided to abide by the 1977 treaty.
U.S. Marine Corps assessment
A 2008 handbook, released as part of the U.S Marine Corps Intelligence Activities Country Handbook Program, gives a candid view of almost everything pertaining to Saudi Arabia (history, geography, society) and its military. According to the document, the U.S estimates the number of Saudi soldiers in service at around 200,000 — with about 20,000 in its reserves and 15,000 in the ranks of Saudi paramilitary groups.
The document goes on to list the various branches comprising the Ministry of Defense, including the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF), the Royal Saudi Navy Forces (RSNF), the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), the Royal Saudi Air Defense Force (RSADF) and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). It also lists the armament capabilities of Saudi troops and mentions the deficiencies of each branch, especially the chronic inability to garner volunteers from among Saudi youth.
As the Handbook puts it, although Saudi Arabia has a large population base, sufficient to ensure the army has a continuity of manpower, and despite attractive material incentives, Royal Saudi Land Forces face difficulty in recruiting and maintaining sufficient qualified personnel:
Military service is not attractive to most Saudis [who live in a welfare state]; as such, recruits often do not have the capacity or motivation to operate and maintain the ground forces’ arsenal. As a result, foreign and civilian personnel have to perform a variety of functions, from the servicing and maintenance of weapons systems to the demand for spare parts and supplies.”
The report doesn’t give much higher marks to the Royal Saudi Air Force, noting that the RSAF — historically known as having a defensive mission — is attempting to acquire offensive skills. As the authors of the handbook note:
Saudis demonstrate a weakness for strategic air operational planning and execution beyond the squadron level. Communications is stove-piped and there is very little joint-services communication. The air force has little experience in offensive operations and is perceived to have an over-reliance on foreign technical support and personnel to manage and maintain combat operations.”
The Saudi Navy doesn’t fare much better. The Marine Corps assessment concludes that, despite Saudi ambitions to create a navy capable of confronting the “Iranian naval threat (which is beyond its experience and strength),” the Royal Saudi Navy Forces, “like the other Saudi military services, are ill-prepared to handle the acquisition of new vessels and technology and are still dependent on foreign contractor support for fleet maintenance and logistics.”
The assessment goes on to explain the structure and arming of the National Guard, whose mission is supposed to be to protect the royal family and the country’s oil installations, but is instead engaged in maintaining the regime and suppressing domestic opposition activity. The report highlights the Guard’s training program, which is ostensibly independent of the Defense Ministry’s. About a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s “tribal regiments” (around 25,000) are members of the National Guard, and Guard personnel are reviewed only once a month when they collect their salaries. “They are not well-trained or equipped, but are used as a means to support subsidies paid to local elders to maintain the loyalty of their tribes,” the report states.
Modernization in reverse
While few academics have written about the Saudi military or researched its capabilities and points of weakness, there are a few studies comprehensive enough to provide insight into Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities. In her 2011 research paper titled “Tribes, Coups and Princes: Building a Modern Army in Saudi Arabia”, Senior Research Associate at the University of London, Dr. Stephanie Cronin, points out how “Saudi Arabia entered the twenty-first century having experienced not military modernization but rather military modernization in reverse.” She goes on to say, “the strength of tribal and family ties and patronage has not weakened but rather embedded ever more deeply within a system of patrimonial rule,” and concludes:
Recruitment remained voluntary, avoiding the administrative centralization and bureaucratic rationality demanded by conscription, while both the integrative function of conscription and the emergence of a professional officer corps were sacrificed to the imperative of sustaining the tribal and family ascendancy of the al-Saud.”
Anthony Cordesman, in his 2002 research for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled “Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century: The Military and Internal Security Dimension,” echoes similar sentiments to those expressed by Dr. Cronin. While the report relies heavily on the U.S. Marine Corps’ assessment of Saudi military capability, it does add some detail on the vulnerabilities of each military branch.
As Cordesman notes, “the RSAF has failed to improve its training and organization at the mid- and high-command levels, and for joint operations at anything like the rate required – a serious, if not inexcusable, failure in military leadership.” Cordesman also mentions the isolation of SANG forces:
There is little real-world cooperation with the regular forces and Ministry of Defense and Aviation, although there is one token liaison meeting a month. There are no meaningful joint exercises with the Saudi regular army and air force, and there has been no effort to develop a common concept of operations or to see if the Saudi Air Defense Force could support the Guard in some contingencies. The Guard and regular forces use different communications systems, and there are no joint war plans. Any cooperation requires each service to send liaison officers to the other service with radios.”
Cordesman’s research concludes:
The Kingdom needs to recognize that it can no longer afford military procurement efforts that emphasize political considerations and/or high technology “glitter” over military effectiveness. Saudi Arabia needs long-term force plans and planning, programming, and budget systems that create stable and affordable force development and defense spending efforts. It needs to bring its manpower quality and sustainment capabilities into balance with its equipment.”
Cordesman’s assessment was drafted 16 years ago, when the Defense Ministry was headed by Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, yet it is still valid today under Crown Prince and current Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi leadership is still obsessed with outperforming its neighbors and boasting of its power. Perhaps the problem lies in a Saudi psyche that pushes the regime to purchase tens of billions of dollars worth of arms that to date have not resulted in a single victory for the wealthy Gulf Kingdom.
A version of this article appeared in Al-Akhbar in Arabic.
Top Photo | U.S. Marines exchange handshakes with Saudi Arabia’s Naval Special Forces after a joint training exercise in the Middle East, May 18, 2017. Kyle McNan | U.S. Marine Corp