Saudi Defense Strategy: Colossal Failure

Pakistan and Egypt may have troops for Saudi Arabia, but they are likely to consider the long-term consequences of supporting a regime whose extremist ideology is blamed for much of the turbulence in the Muslim world.



Due to historical mistrust of and lack of faith in their people’s aptitude to defend their country, the autocratic Saudi monarchs have relied on hired services to protect them and to defend their kingdom since the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932.

Externally the US has assumed the bulk of defending Saudi Arabia in exchange for oil. Regionally, the Saudi rulers have used mostly hired out Egyptian and Pakistani soldiers.

Internally, they have relied on an ubiquitous security apparatus such as the ferocious religious police, Mukhabarat and Mubahath (informants and investigators), and more so on the regime’s dogmatically staffed and highly mechanized national guard estimated at 100,000 personnel in 1991. The Saudi National Guard’s singular task is to protect the royal family from their citizens and from each other.

Based on joint agreement, “…Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood – relatively inexpensive oil – to run the world economy and pumps billions each year into the US arms industry.” Despite their extraordinary political and social discordance (the US is the world’s most powerful democracy and the Saudi regime is a weak nomadic-based absolute monarchy), US-Saudi cooperation has lasted for decades.

However, the Arab Spring has called into question the adequacy of the Saudis’ agreements with their traditional protectors. Globally, the US began to review its relations with the Saudis as it did with the rest of the Arab world, especially after the swift overthrow of former US and Saudi supported autocratic allies like Mubarak of Egypt and Bin Ali of Tunisia.

The US and other foreign powers have apparently concluded that the Arab Spring is unstoppable and will likely spill over to the remaining Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. Realizing that the Saudi regime is as susceptible as its counterparts in the Arab world, the US and other Western powers seem to be questioning the wisdom of continuing their support for an unpopular and repressive regime whose fate is uncertain. This is evident by US reluctance to continue its unconditional support for the Saudi royals as exemplified by the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian and Iranian crises. The Saudis wanted the Syrian regime replaced and the Iranian theocracy’s military crippled, two risky adventures for the US, but which would have strengthened the Saudi royals’ grip on power domestically and cleared the way for them to secure their regional Sunni dominance.

Regionally, the Saudi rulers have relied on countries like Pakistan and Egypt to protect them and defend their kingdom. However, recent events in the Greater Middle East have changed the power equation. Egypt is in the throes of internal turmoil and can barely maintain its own stability, while Pakistan is plagued with terrorism, increasing social unrest and must consider its strategic interests, especially regarding Iran. Pakistan and Egypt may have the troops to loan to the Saudi regime for lucrative compensation, but they are likely to consider the long-term consequences of supporting a regime whose extremist ideology is blamed for much of the turbulence in the Muslim world, including Pakistan.

Domestically, the Saudi ruling princes have effectively and ruthlessly used religion as their sustaining power long before they declared the birth of their Kingdom in 1932. The royals have used religion to legitimize their territorial expansions, justify their military conquests and to spread their brand of Wahhabi Islam to all corners of the earth.

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They created and empowered a zealous religious establishment, comprised exclusively of the descendants of the founder of the State’s official religion, the austere Hanbali/Wahhabi brand. The ruling family entrusted the clerics with categorical physical, mental and social control over all aspects of society including dress code, moral conduct, worship,  education and above all, total submission to God and to the ruling family. The monarchs in collaboration with the clerics designated the Quran as the state’s constitution and the Shariah as its law.

Tribal loyalty, albeit purchased, has also played a major role in sustaining the Saudi ruling family in power. The founder of the Saudi state, King Ibn Saud and his 53 known sons embraced prominent nomadic chieftains, married their daughters and sisters and put them on the royal payroll. Additionally, the royal family uses the bribery system to buy public loyalty and acquiescence, especially in recent times. This practice intensified since the onset of the violent Arab Spring. King Abdullah allotted billions of dollars to projects, social welfare, direct cash loans and scholarships for thousands of restless and potentially troublesome youth to study abroad.

All these maneuvers and arrangements crafted to buttress the Saudi regime’s internal security worked relatively well until two events of historic proportions occurred. The September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorists’ attack on the US by mostly Saudi nationals and the unexpected explosion of the Arab Revolts (the Arab Spring) on December 18, 2010 exposed the Saudi regime’s weakness in relying on purchased domestic and external security arrangements. These events prompted the Saudi people not only to feel alarmed by their regime’s religious ideology that produced the 9/11 hijackers and the likes of ISIS, but also to share the aspirations of other Arabs who overthrew their oppressive regimes. The previous arrangements using bribery, intermarriage, tribal loyalty and intimidation to maintain internal security seem to be outliving their effectiveness.

At a time when domestic and regional threats to the Saudi monarchy and to the country are increasing, the Saudi regime can no longer rely on its pervious security arrangements. Currently, Saudi Arabia is threatened on its northern border by the advances of ISIS and on its southern borders by increasing incursions by anti-regime Saudi and Yemeni nationals. More dangerously, it’s threatened on its strategic eastern borders by its disenfranchised Shia citizens, by the violent unrest in Bahrain, by Iranian influence in the Gulf region and by the strategic disintegration of the oligarchical GCC alliance.

The Saudi regime is in an unprecedented precarious position. It has lost its bedrock external support and has failed to empower its people and build a reliable indigenous defense force due to its lack of trust and faith in its citizens. Despite their relentless efforts, the Saudi rulers have failed to recruit new external powers to defend them. Consequently, they risk losing their grip on power, if not their survival.

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Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.