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Saudi Arabia


The Military Threat

Until Iraq concentrated its forces on Saudi Arabia's northeastern border after the occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the kingdom had been exposed to few direct threats to its territory. The only overtly hostile actions were from Yemeni-based Egyptian air and naval units in 1963, PDRY forces that attacked Saudi border posts in 1969 and 1973, and Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the nation's wide geographic expanse and lengthy coastlines on both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, combined with a small, scattered population, presented unusual problems of defense. With the world's largest reserves of oil and vulnerable oil processing facilities, the kingdom saw itself as a tempting target for aggressive forces. Moreover, it was militarily weak in a highly volatile region of the world, amid heavily armed and potentially hostile neighbors.

Until the late 1980s, Saudi security concerns focused on the communist influence in nearby countries, notably in Ethiopia and the PDRY, which gave the Soviet Union access to naval facilities in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia interpreted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 as a means of establishing a staging area for future operations in the Persian Gulf. The revolution in Iran earlier that year produced a radical Shia-dominated regime in Tehran and introduced a far more immediate threat to gulf stability. Iranian belligerence led Saudi Arabia to support Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. The heating up of the tanker war in 1987 escalated tensions. The Saudis, concerned about domestic attitudes and the reaction of Arab states, discouraged deeper United States involvement in the crisis. In April 1987, the United States agreed to Kuwait's request that Kuwaiti tankers sail under the United States flag with naval escorts. Saudi Arabia cooperated with this operation by assisting in mine clearance and air surveillance.

The Saudi leadership considered Iran's condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and its adherence to United Nations (UN) sanctions during the Persian Gulf War to be welcome signs of moderation. The overthrow of the Marxist regime in Addis Ababa in 1991 and the collapse of Soviet influence in the Middle East further reduced the threat of radical influences near the kingdom's borders.

The Persian Gulf War in 1991 battered the offensive capability of Iraq's formidable military machine. An estimated forty divisions were lost or rendered ineffective. About twothirds of Iraq's 4,500 tanks were destroyed as well as more than 2,000 artillery pieces. Nevertheless, the Iraqi army's active manpower strength was an estimated 380,000 at the war's end, including three divisions of the Republican Guards, the troops considered most loyal to President Saddam Husayn. Despite crippling blows to its fighting potential, Iraq remained a potential adversary and a long-term security threat to Saudi Arabia's limited forces.

Relations with Yemen have always been troubled in modern times. The border has been the scene of periodic tribal clashes and boundary disputes. The Riyadh government's bases in the southern desert enabled it to maintain ground and air units near the Yemeni frontier. Saudi Arabia had subsidized the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR--North Yemen) government and the northern Yemeni tribes and tried to isolate the Marxist government of the PDRY.

The reuniting of the two Yemens in May 1990 left Saudi Arabia uneasy that secular leftist elements of a more populous combined Yemen might prevail over the Islamic conservatism of the former YAR. Relations worsened when Yemen came out in support of Iraq, after the latter's invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia retaliated by deporting about 1 million Yemeni workers whose repatriated earnings had formed a major part of Yemen's economy.

Long stretches of uninhabited desert, known as the Empty Quarter, or Rub al Khali, formed disputed territory between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. To counter Yemeni smuggling and to maintain better surveillance of the border area, Saudi Arabia announced in 1991 that it was seeking bids on an electronic security system to detect illegal crossings. In 1992 Saudi Arabia demanded that foreign oil companies discontinue test drilling in parts of the disputed territory that had long been under Yemeni control. The kingdom was thought to fear that a surge of oil revenues could be used to modernize the Yemeni armed forces. Saudi border patrols were increased and, according to the Yemenis, Saudi agents were active among residents of the disputed area for the purpose of undermining Yemen's authority.

Saudi Arabia viewed with concern the possibility of renewed Arab-Israeli hostilities and the strong Israeli military establishment was seen as a potential threat to its security. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia considered a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question a primary objective of its policies. The Saudis linked the influence of revolutionary Arab regimes to the continuation of the Arab-Israeli confrontation and the Israeli occupation of Arab territory on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia did not see war with Israel as an imminent threat, but it feared Israel's ability to mount strategic air strikes against sensitive Saudi targets at the outset of any future Arab-Israeli conflict. The possibility of such preemptive strikes by Israel had impelled Saudi Arabia to commit a major part of its modern air defense to its northern border zones. The most likely Israeli targets in the kingdom would be the complex of military bases around Tabuk in the northwest or the pipeline terminal and other oil facilities at Yanbu al Bahr on the Red Sea. More distant Saudi targets could be reached with aerial refueling.

In spite of past differences and their considerable military strengths, the neighboring Islamic countries of Egypt and Syria were not regarded in 1992 as potential adversaries. In certain respects, Saudi Arabia's geographic position on the peninsula was a favorable one. The harshness of its interior desert practically limited overland attack to the northwest corner facing Jordan and Syria and to the northeast corridor parallel to the Persian Gulf. Harassing attacks by air or sea could be very damaging, however, disrupting oil production and tanker traffic.

Countries surrounding the Arabian Peninsula--although heavily armed--were poorly equipped to mount and sustain a full-scale invasion by sea or air. Saudi Arabia would be less prepared to deal with intervention by a neighboring power in one of the smaller states of the peninsula, using local disturbances or turmoil as a pretext and then expanding its position. The politically vulnerable gulf oil states had been subject to outside intervention in the past; for this reason, Saudi Arabia and the smaller states had joined to form a system for collective security.

Data as of December 1992

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