June 18, 2011: Saudi Arabia has avoided any of the unrest that has hit the rest of the Arab world lately because the kingdom has two armed forces. One protects the royal family, the other protects Saudi Arabia. Overall, the Saudi military has about 200,000 troops. But 80,000 of those belong to a separate force, the National Guard. These are organized into eight brigades (three mechanized and five infantry, for a total of 32 battalions.) There are also another 24 battalions of National Guard reservists. About 75 percent of the National Guard troops spend most of their time guarding oil facilities, and other important government assets. The rest provide security for the royal family and key government officials. The most loyal, and able, members of the royal family hold senior commands in the National Guard. This is an organization that puts a lot of emphasis on loyalty.
The National Guard is well armed and trained, all of them. But most of all, they are loyal to the royal family. But being that the country is called Saudi Arabia, after the ruling Saud family, the National Guard also protects the government. Since the Sauds see themselves, first and foremost, as the protectors of the most holy places in Islam (Mecca and Medina), the National Guard also serves God. So the National Guard is far more than tribal warriors loyal to a wealthy and generous family. The National Guard are holy warriors, who follow the protectors of the Islamic holy places. That's a big deal in Arabia, and the Islamic world. While the National Guard recruits first for loyalty, next comes bravery and willingness to die for the cause (the royal family and Islam.) Then comes military aptitude.
The National Guard were originally, a century ago, the Ikwhan. These were truly holy warriors, being Bedouin fighters dedicated to the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, and killing enemies of Islam. The founder of Saudi Arabia (Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud) used the Ikwhan as his shock troops. In the 1930s, the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia had to crack down on the Ikwhan , who were continuing to raid outside the kingdom, since there were no more enemies to go after inside the kingdom. To avoid wars with neighboring states, the Ikwhan was shut down (with some bloodshed), and some of its members helped form the National Guard.
Foreign trainers brought in to help the National Guardsmen improve their combat skills note that many of their students are not well educated, but nearly all are eager to learn new ways to fight. The National Guard gets the best equipment, and gets it quickly. The National Guard is not armed to fight foreign enemies, but internal ones. It has no tanks or jet fighters. It has lots of wheeled armored vehicles, some artillery plus helicopters and light recon aircraft. The National Guard is equipped to get where they are needed quickly, and suppress any unrest before it can grow.
The communications of the National Guard connects directly to the royal family, and is set up to coordinate with the regular army. There is a paid tribal militia of 25,000 warriors, who are armed and equipped by the king. This is considered a National Guard reserve. These militiamen are organized into 24 battalions and are basically light infantry.
The National Guard has about a thousand wheeled armored vehicles and some artillery. In recent years, nearly $9 billion was spent on new wheeled armored vehicles, and lots of neat gadgets like night vision gear and new communications equipment. Bedouins love this stuff, and adapt quickly to it. The National Guard commanders noted the experience of American troops in Iraq, and have requested, and generally been able to purchase, all the weapons and gear American used successfully in Iraq. If the National Guard goes to war, it will be with Islamic radicals similar to those encountered in Iraq. The National Guard troops have also noted how Iraqi troops adopted American weapons and techniques, and been successful fighting terrorists.
Nearly all the National Guardsmen troops are Bedouins, usually from tribes that have been historical allies of the al Saud family. The king considers the Guardsmen his boys, and takes good care of them. If a Saudi needs a favor from the king, he's much more likely to get it if he is, or was a National Guardsman.
About a third of the National Guard are especially selected from the most loyal (to the royal family) families. This is the "White Army" (for the traditional white robes of the Bedouins). The most loyal force is the 2,000 man Royal Guard Regiment. These, as the name implies, are responsible for the day-to-day security of the king and his immediate family.
When Saudi Arabia was put together 80 years ago, many tribes were encouraged to join the new kingdom by force, or lots of verbal coercion. These groups continue to hold a grudge (a venerable Middle Eastern custom), and the most hostile of these are not recruited for the National Guard.
The National Guard has been called out several times, and has always managed to get the job done. In 1979, it was the National Guard who took down the Islamic radicals who had invaded the Grand Mosque in Mecca (with a lot of help, and some National Guardsmen also helped the rebels). In 1990, it was the National Guard that went in and chased Iraqi troops out of a Saudi border town. During the battle with al Qaeda from 2003-6, it was the National Guard that was called out when large numbers of troops were needed (usually to blockade an area terrorists were believed to be in). The loyalty of the National Guard was one reason al Qaeda was never able to make a successful attack on an oil facility. Al Qaeda often relies on bribes to penetrate heavy security. The National Guardsmen protecting those sites were incorruptible. The current unrest in the Middle East has not manifested itself in Saudi Arabia in part because Saudis realize that the National Guard will fight to the death to protect the royal family.