Forces: July 30, 2004

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The Saudi military is arguably the most powerful Arab military organization, second only to Egypt. This is a necessity with Iran as a neighbor, as the Iranians have dominated the region for thousands of years. The problem is, of course, that Saudi Arabia also faces a great internal threat as well, primarily from Islamic fundamentalists.

The Saudi command structure is probably the most unique feature of their security forces. It is, in essence, a large family affair among the royal family. There are three major figures in this government: Crown Prince Abdullah, Prince Sultan (Second Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Civil Aviation), and Prince Nayif (Minister of the Interior). Each have their own intelligence services (the National Guard Intelligence Division reports to Crown Prince Abdullah, Military Intelligence reports to Prince Sultan, and the General Security Service reports to Prince Nayif).

The military is divided into five branches: The National Guard, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Air Defense Force. The systems acquired are modern, including M1A2 main battle tanks, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, the F-15C air-superiority fighter, the F-15S strike-fighter, and the Lafayette-class frigate. The F-15s are downgraded, though, primarily to alleviate concerns from Israel (which does not have as many of these combat-proven air-superiority fighters). Saudi Arabia has a total of roughly 168 F-15-series aircraft, the third-largest operator of the Eagle (behind the United States and Japan albeit Japans 187 Eagles are all of the F-15C/D variety the Saudi versions are much more versatile).

The Saudi military has not only had combat experience in Desert Storm. In June, 1984, an air battle between Saudi F-15s and Iranian F-4Es erupted. Two of the Iranian fighters were shot down, the only time where one McDonnell-Douglas product has shot down another. In a conventional war with Iran in the near-future, the Saudis will probably be supplementing the air power of the United States and other friendly governments in the region (most notably Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait). That said, the external threat, while it exists, is not the most pressing concern.

Saudi Arabias most immediate problem is the internal threats. For a long time, Saudi Arabia has dealt with Islamic extremists and terrorism. This country is not a stranger to internal violence not only political, but religious. The primary internal security forces are the Ministry of Interior and the National Guard, with the General Intelligence Presidency also playing a role. The Ministry of the Interior and the General Intelligence Presidency had begun building up their capabilities after bin Laden declared himself an opponent of the monarchy in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia is the reason bin Laden has cited in his fatwas (religious decrees) against the United States. One should also note, however, that bin Laden offered to fight against Saddam Hussein for the Saudis prior to the Saudis issuing their invitation to the U.S. Bin Laden's offer was rejected. Bin Ladens complaints about American forces in Saudi Arabia are not just religious in nature his problem with the 1991 Gulf War also involves a bruised ego.

Coordination between these services is a problem. The Saudis place a high emphasis on consensus, usually derived through informal consultation. There is no real procedure for this, which means that more often than not, the coordination is haphazard, and that makes dealing with internal threats that much more difficult.

While the Interior Ministry and National Guard are the direct players in the area of internal security, there are a number of indirect players. The most notable (and unique) of these is the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. This ministry has provided at various times, carrots and sticks to keep the clergy in line. This ministry came into being after Desert Shield and Desert Storm, since a number of hard-line mullahs objected to the presence of American troops. This leads to an interesting dilemma for the Saudi government: The Saudi king is also the guardian of the Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam. At the same time, the American forces in Saudi Arabia were guests of the Saudi government, and so, the Saudis walked a fine line between honoring (and protecting) their guests (a strict obligation under the Koran) and keeping the very conservative clergy from getting too unhappy. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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