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Saudi Arabia

Chapter 5. National Security

Beduin warrior

DURING ITS INFANCY in the 1930s, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia needed little as far as national security was concerned-- protection of the king and the royal family, safety of the holy places, and nominal defense of its territory, much of which needed no other protection than that provided by its natural desolation. Sixty years later, however, as producer and largest exporter of oil and owner of about one-fourth of all proven reserves, the land of the Al Saud (the House of Saud) was in the world limelight. Its security was of major international concern, not only because the economies of many industrialized countries depended on Saudi oil, but because of the kingdom's contribution to stability and political moderation in the Middle East.

King Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud, restorer of Al Saud and founder of the kingdom in 1932, had many sons, four of whom (all born to different mothers) have succeeded him to the throne. The defense and security organizations introduced under Abd al Aziz and particularly promoted by King Faisal ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud during his reign (ruled 1964-75), have grown and developed into three independent entities: the armed forces, the paramilitary forces of the national guard, and the police and security forces of the Ministry of Interior. In 1992 King Fahd ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud, who had been on the throne for a decade, was at the apex of the security system, which was headed by three amirs (princes) of the royal family--all sons of Abd al Aziz. The regular armed forces--army, navy, air force, and air defense force--were under the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, headed by Amir Sultan ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud. The internal security and police functions, and paramilitary frontier guard elements were under Amir Nayif ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud, the minister of interior. The Saudi Arabian National Guard, charged with the protection of vital installations, maintaining internal security, and supporting the Ministry of Defense as required, was headed by Amir Abd Allah ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud, who was also crown prince.

The manpower of the regular armed forces was estimated by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies to be 106,000 in 1992. The army was reported to have 73,000 personnel; the navy, 11,000; the air force, 18,000; and the air defense forces, 4,000. The active-duty strength of the national guard was believed to be about 55,000; part-time tribal levies accounted for 20,000 more.

Despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on modernizing its armed forces, the kingdom remained vulnerable. Although the communist threat in the region had dissipated, the country's oil wealth made it a potential target for radical states with more powerful military establishments. The nation's defense presented complex problems. Its territory was as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River, and the limited Saudi forces had to be concentrated in widely scattered areas of greatest strategic sensitivity. Its stronger neighbors had greater experience in warfare and had larger numbers under arms. Although the country had never faced a direct threat of invasion, its situation changed dramatically in August 1990 when Iraq occupied Kuwait and massed its troops on Saudi Arabia's northern border. The national guard was rushed to the border, but it was clear that Saudi forces alone would be unable to prevent Iraq from seizing the Saudi and Persian Gulf states' oil assets. King Fahd accordingly turned to the United States and others for help.

A Saudi general, the son of the minister of defense and aviation, was named co-commander of Operation Desert Storm, the allied campaign that drove the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in February 1991. The Saudi army had its first taste of combat operations, combining with United States forces and forces from a number of Western and other Arab states to liberate Kuwait City. The kingdom pledged more than US$16.8 billion to support the United States costs of deploying its forces and to provide financial assistance to other countries that contributed forces to Desert Storm or were disadvantaged by compliance with sanctions imposed against Iraq. The war exposed the country's need for improved deterrence, and King Fahd announced that a major expansion of the armed forces would be carried out during the remainder of the 1990s. His goals included a doubling of the army's size, the creation of a new reserve system, and additional combat aircraft for the air force and warships for the navy.

The army was the senior and largest of the services as well as the most influential in the military hierarchy and the government. The chief of staff of the armed forces has invariably been an army general. The air force was second in seniority, enjoying considerable popularity among the younger members of the royal family and other elites who joined to train as pilots and held many of the commands. The air force was the first line of defense against surprise attack aimed at Persian Gulf oil installations. Its skilled pilots flew thousands of sorties in the Persian Gulf War and repelled Iranian intrusions during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. In the judgment of the United States Department of Defense, the air force and the national guard, the two branches with the closest affiliation with the United States, were the most combat-ready and reliable of the armed services during the Persian Gulf crisis.

The air defense force, separated from the army in the mid1980s , operated fixed and mobile antiaircraft missile systems that guarded cities, oil facilities, and other strategic sites, chiefly along the Persian Gulf. These missile systems, along with the combat aircraft and ground radar stations, were linked to the Peace Shield air defense network, which depended heavily on surveillance by aircraft of the Saudi-operated and United Statessupported airborne warning and control system (AWACS).

The Saudi navy remained a coastal force operating from bases along the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Its potential was growing with the delivery of four French guided-missile frigates in the mid-1980s and three more scheduled to be commissioned in the mid1990s . The navy assisted in escort and minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf during the tense "tanker war" period of the 1980s.

A problem shared by all four armed services was the constant need for personnel qualified to operate and maintain a mixed inventory of advanced equipment and weapons. The limited pool of military recruits had forced Saudi Arabia to rely heavily on high technology. The Saudi policy of purchasing its weapons from diverse military suppliers contributed to the problem and introduced a hybrid character to the services that hampered their overall efficiency.

The special military relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia since the mid-1940s has been built around United States policy to promote stability and peace in the Persian Gulf region. Although the two countries had no agreement on basing or facilities, Saudi Arabia has sought United States deployments of ships and fighter or surveillance aircraft in emergency situations. The huge scale of the Saudi base complexes and the interoperability of equipment have facilitated such deployments.

Initially, United States assistance consisted of weapons and equipment and of advisers to develop the organization and to help train Saudi forces. Since the mid-1960s, with the rise in oil revenues, the Saudis have been able to pay for the needed arms, equipment, and instructors, as well as for the services of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for the construction of bases, military housing, and other facilities. Until 1990, less than 20 percent of approximately US$60 billion in military sales was for weapons; most expenditures were for infrastructure, maintenance, spare parts, and training. The need for new weapons and replenishment of stocks used during the Persian Gulf War triggered a surge of new military orders that were pending as of 1992. Faced with political obstacles in obtaining United States arms, the Saudis have maintained supply relationships with other countries, notably Britain and France, which have had training missions in the kingdom for many years. The number of Western military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia has deliberately been kept to a minimum, but large numbers of civilians--under contract to corporations--have worked in the kingdom in training, maintenance, and logistics functions.

Data as of December 1992

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