Counter-Terrorism: How The Culture Clash Works


September 11, 2012: Despite over a year of civil war inside their southern neighbor Yemen, most Saudis are confident that they have suppressed al Qaeda terrorist activities in their own kingdom. This can be seen from the fact the most wanted lists (issued by national and provincial police) mainly features drug dealers, gangsters, and non-religious bad men in general. Most of the Islamic terrorists have been arrested, surrendered, or gone to fight in Yemen, Syria, or other foreign lands in need of Saudi Holy Warriors. What really bothers many Saudis is why, with all the affluence in their kingdom there are so many educated young men, from good families, who go off to join Islamic terrorist groups. The answer has a lot to do with what opportunities Saudi society offers its young men and what is done (or, rather, not done) to help them prepare for the future.

The official unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is 11 percent, but many of those men are unemployed by choice and the unofficial rate is over 20 percent. Saudi Arabia, like most Arab states, has a very different labor force than is found in the West. There are several reasons for this.

Arabs tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, and most jobs available, even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy. Thus most Saudis prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. In the non-government sector of the economy 90 percent of the Saudi jobs are taken by foreigners. These foreigners comprise 27 percent of the Saudi population, mostly to staff all the non-government jobs. This means most young Saudi men have few challenges. One might say that many of them are desperate for some test of their worth and a job in the competitive civilian economy does not do it. These jobs are considered boring and, well, not worthy of a descendent of the mighty Bedouin tribes that have long controlled the area. Being a terrorist, even if it means a quick death as a suicide bomber, is considered a preferable alternative to helping run the civilian economy. The Saudi government knows that it is essential that Saudis actually run the economy. But they must force businesses to hire less efficient and more troublesome Saudi employees. Foreigners work harder for less and cause fewer problems. Currently 30 percent of employees (in commercial enterprises) must be Saudis and that percentage will keep going up. On the plus side this is causing more demand for employers to be allowed to hire Saudi women, who also work harder and are less inclined to give the boss a hard time.

The Saudi employment situation is not unique. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has foreigners occupying 99 percent of the non-government jobs. The unemployment rate is 23 percent but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. Kuwait is more entrepreneurial, with only 80 percent of the non-government jobs taken by foreigners. The other Gulf Arab states (which have less oil) have a similar situation.

Many Saudis are aware of the problem, especially those who have studied in the West or spent some time there. As a result, there are some very competent Saudi doctors, scientists, and bankers. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Saudis seek ways to work around these problems. For example, the royal family established the National Guard in the 1930s, as a private tribal army, that is now almost as large as the regular army and considered more dependable and effective than the regulars. That's because the National Guard troops follow traditional rules of military leadership and have a personal relationship with the king. Only men from tribes that are known to be loyal to the Saud family may join, and they are expected to make their family and tribe proud. Saddam Hussein and other Arab leaders formed similar organizations. Saddam had his Republican Guard. Despots the world over tend to have a guard force recruited more for blood ties and loyalty than for anything else.

The regular forces (army, navy, and air force) are just government jobs, run by another government bureaucracy. There are lower standards because there are none of the family or tribal ties that can demand better. Only in the West do most people give the same devotion and respect to non-family/tribal institutions. Thus family run businesses in the Middle East are the model for a highly effective business. In the West, the most effective businesses are corporations where nepotism (family ties) are discouraged, if not outright forbidden.

It comes down to a different cultural attitude towards taking responsibility for your actions. It's human nature to avoid failure or taking responsibility for a mistake. Thus we have the concept of "saving face." One reason the West has made such economic, cultural, military, and social progress in the last five hundred years is because they developed a habit of holding people responsible for their actions and giving out the rewards based on achievement. In the West this sort of thing is taken for granted, even if it is not always practiced.

But in much of the rest of the world, especially the Arab world, things are different. Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority, as in Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq (formerly), and Nejdis in Saudi Arabia. The result of all this means that officers and officials are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Then there are the Islamic schools, which are so popular in Moslem countries, which favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book. Western armies rewrite the book and thus usually win.

All of this makes it difficult to develop a real NCO corps. Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies and nobody cares.

Arab officers often do not trust each other. While an American infantry officer can be reasonably confident that the artillery officers will conduct their bombardment on time and on target, Arab infantry officers seriously doubt that their artillery will do its job on time or on target. This is a fatal attitude in combat.

Arab military leaders consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. This had catastrophic consequences during all of the Arab-Israeli wars and continues to make peace difficult between Israelis and Palestinians. When called out on this behavior, Arabs will assert that they were "misunderstood."

American officers and NCOs are only too happy to impart their wisdom and skill to others (teaching is the ultimate expression of prestige) but Arab officers try to keep any technical information and manuals secret. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach but on what he knows that no one else knows.

While Western officers thrive on competition among themselves, Arab officers avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. Better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone.

Western troops are taught leadership and technology; Arabs are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as officers are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as officers.

In Arab bureaucracies initiative is considered a dangerous trait. So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Battles are micromanaged by senior generals, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab officer will not tell an ally why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western officers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab officers simply will not admit that they do not have that authority.

This lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arab armies to maintain modern weapons. Complex modern technology requires on the spot maintenance and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab organizations avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops (which makes the timely maintenance of equipment difficult). If you can afford it, as the Saudis can, you hire lots of foreign maintenance experts to keep equipment operational. All this is taken for granted inside Saudi Arabia but looks quite strange to Westerners who encounter it for the first time.

While these cultural differences make it more difficult to run a modern, technological society, they do make it easier to form terrorist organizations and carry out lots of attacks. Thus many Arabs are not eager to study engineering or science in college (religion is the preferred major in Saudi Arabia), they are more inclined to die in the cause of creating a worldwide Islamic dictatorship.




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