Forces: The Saudi Arabian Armed Forces


December 24, 2023: The Saudi armed forces have potential tribal problems as well as a shortage of able volunteers. Despite that they have eventually, after several generations, moved away from an emphasis on tribal affiliation and loyalties to a more nationalistic attitude. The current population is 32 million, with a per-capita income that is among the highest in the world, and an unemployment rate under ten percent. Recent generations have become more concerned with national security in an increasingly hostile world, especially when it comes to the Iranians.

More Saudis are willing to serve in the military and such participation has now become more socially acceptable. This is especially true for those Saudis who join the more technical services, like the air force or navy. Saudi Arabia is a major destination for foreign weapons, especially high-end warplanes, and warships. The Saudis devote eight percent of GDP to the military, which has about 250,000 active duty personnel, many of whom are needed to operate the many warplanes, warships, and high-end weapons systems for the ground forces. There are finally enough qualified volunteers to operate and maintain all the military aircraft and warships the huge defense budget can purchase.

Now the Saudis are finally expanding their small navy, which has about 10,000 naval personnel and 3,000 marines. The navy also has to divide its forces between the Eastern Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the Western Fleet in the Red Sea. The navy has 11 new frigates in service or on order, as well as 11 smaller corvettes. There are 39 patrol boats. Naval aviation consists of 19 helicopters. The Saudis are planning to expand naval aviation to include six American P-8A maritime patrol aircraft that are on order. The Saudis work closely with the American naval forces stationed in the Persian Gulf, especially when it comes to dealing with Iranian aggression and threats to the many tankers entering and leaving the Gulf each day.

Currently the Iranians have no major warships but depend on the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its force of small speedboats armed with ATGMs (Anti-Tank-Guided-Missiles) machine-guns. This is a harassment force but capable of damaging small ships and even large oil tankers. Iran also depends on large tankers taking their oil exports out of the Gulf and uses its small gun and missile boats for harassment.

The Saudis maintain two quite separate ground combat forces, the regular army and a national guard which is quite different from the American one. The Saudi National Guard occupies a special place in Saudi Arabia and is the main reason the king does not have to worry much about a rebellion in the army. A lesser reason is a system of foreign technicians, trainers, and advisors who are largely immune to any revolutionary thoughts. One army (the National Guard) exists mainly to protect the royal family and its grip on power, the others (the usual three services) are there to protect Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi National Guard is organized into eight brigades. Three are mechanized and five infantry, and the force contains 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 it. 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. The National Guard is far more than tribal warriors loyal to a wealthy and generous family. The National Guardsmen are holy warriors, who serve 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, which is protecting the royal family and Islam. Then comes military aptitude. This often bothers the foreign trainers brought in to show the guardsmen how to use new equipment or carry out new tactics. But foreigners who have been in the kingdom for a while come to understand the need for loyalty above all.

Foreign trainers also 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 supposed to fight internal enemies, not foreign ones. It has no tanks or jet fighters. It has lots of wheeled armored vehicles, some artillery and helicopters plus 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.

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 kinsmen 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 Guardsmen are especially selected from the most loyal to the royal family tribes. This is called the White Army because of 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 in the 1930s, 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 with French special forces who took down the Islamic radicals, some of them ex-National Guard officers, that had invaded the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 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 largely 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.

The National Guard has about a thousand wheeled armored vehicles and some artillery. About $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 Americans used successfully in Iraq. If the National Guard goes to war it will be against 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 successfully fighting terrorists.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close