Armed Forces Overview: Saudi Arabia has one of the fastest growing militaries in the world, with a growth rate of 222 percent in 2002. The military consists of an army, air force, navy, air defense, and paramilitary forces. In 2004 the armed forces were estimated to include 124,500 men: army, 75,000; air force, 18,000; navy, 15,500 (including 3,000 marines); and air defense forces, 16,000. In addition, the Saudi Arabian National Guard had 75,000 active soldiers and 25,000 tribal levies.
Foreign Military Relations: Since the Cold War era, Saudi Arabia has been militarily aligned with the United States. Saudi Arabia sided with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, but King Fahd called on the United States to intervene when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened the Saudi border in 1991. The United States and Saudi Arabia led an international coalition of forces to victory over Iraq in the ensuing Gulf War. The United States had served as the primary arms provider for Saudi Arabia until Britain supplanted it in 1988. Following the Gulf War, however, the United States again emerged as Saudi Arabia’s primary arms supplier. In 1998 U.S. military exports to Saudi Arabia totaled US$4.3 billion, making Saudi Arabia the leading importer of U.S. military goods. The United States and Saudi Arabia continue to share a common concern over the regional stability of the Middle East—for both security and economic reasons.
Saudi Arabia also provides the home base, as well as personnel and resources, for a small contingent of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops. The GCC force, called the Peninsula Shield Force, numbers about 10,000 men but has suffered from lagging commitment from GCC members. Discrepancies over how to train, arm, and fund the outfit have limited progress.
External Threats: Since 1991, when Saudi Arabia supported the U.S.-led coalition of forces against Iraq in the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime represented the greatest military threat to Saudi Arabia. Thus, Saudi officials closely monitored the movements of Iraqi troops. In 1999 Saudi Arabia broke precedent by openly calling for Iraqis to topple their leader. When fighting came in 2003, however, Saudi Arabia insisted on maintaining its distance from the war against Iraq. With Saddam’s regime having fallen in 2003, new and more amorphous forces have emerged as those most threatening to Saudi security. Like the other Arab countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia regards Israel as an ever-increasing threat to the region. Although Saudi ties to the United States mitigate some fear of Israel, Saudi Arabia has been active in pursuing a resolution to the constant Israeli-Palestinian tension.
Iran is also a source of concern among Saudi officials. The fall of the shah, coupled with Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities, has led many experts to question the stability of the country. Iran has the potential to cause diplomatic and economic instability for the entire Middle East region. Additionally, Saudi officials view the largely uncontrolled migration of tribesmen back and forth across the border from Yemen as a potential security risk. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen were hindered by Yemen’s refusal to join the Gulf War coalition against Iraq and by a long-standing border dispute. A border agreement reached in 2000 lessened the tension between Saudi Arabia and Yemen significantly, but the porous border continues to elicit concern among Saudi defense officials.
Defense Budget: Spending on military and security forces totaled about US$18 million annually in 2002 and 2003. Saudi Arabia ranks among the top 10 in government spending for its military. Military expenditures represent about 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and almost one-third of total government expenditures. It seems likely that military expenses will continue to increase in the coming years. Because Saudi Arabia imports most of its military arms and equipment, the Saudi economy derives little benefit from growth of the defense sector.
Major Military Units: The Saudi military is divided into army, air force, navy, and air defense forces. The Saudi marines serve as part of the navy. The Saudi army is organized into three armored brigades, five mechanized brigades, one airborne brigade, one Royal Guard brigade, and eight artillery battalions. The army also has one aviation command with two aviation brigades. The navy is divided into two fleets with Naval Forces Headquarters in Riyadh. The Western Fleet has bases in Jiddah (Headquarters), Jizan, and Al Wajh. The Eastern Fleet has bases in Al Jubayl (Headquarters), Ad Dammam, Ras al Mishab, and Ras al Ghar. The marines are organized into one infantry regiment with two battalions. Saudi Arabia has at least 15 active military airfields. Air forces are organized in four fighter/ground-attack squadrons, nine fighter squadrons, and three training squadrons. The National Guard, augmented by 25,000 tribal levies, is organized into three mechanized infantry brigades, five infantry brigades, and one ceremonial cavalry squadron.
Major Military Equipment: Saudi Arabia ranks among the world’s most densely armed nations. Its weapons holdings in 2001 were estimated to total 4,810,000, a per capita rate of 197,992.54 per 1 million people, ranking Saudi Arabia in the top quarter among armed nations in the world.
The army’s main equipment consists of a combination of French- and U.S.-made armored vehicles. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the army is equipped with 315 M-1A2 Abrams, 290 AMX-30, and 450 M60A3 main battle tanks, many of which are in store; 300 reconnaissance vehicles; 570+ AMX-10P and 400 M-2 Bradley armored infantry fighting vehicles; 3,000+ armored personnel carriers, including the Al-Fahd, which was produced in Saudi Arabia; 200+ towed artillery pieces; 110 self-propelled artillery pieces; 60 multiple rocket launchers; 400 mortars; 10 surface-to-surface missiles; about 2,000 antitank guided weapons; about 200 rocket launchers; 450 recoilless launchers; 12 attack helicopters; 50+ transport helicopters; and 1,000 surface-to-air missiles.
The navy’s inventory includes 8 principal surface combatants, 26 patrol and coastal combatants, 7 mine warfare vessels, 8 amphibious craft, and 7 support and miscellaneous craft. Naval aviation forces have 21 helicopters (armed) serving in naval support.
The Royal Saudi air force has a fleet of nearly 300 combat aircraft (but no armed helicopters). However, its operational capabilities are believed to have fallen considerably since the Gulf War. The fighter planes owned by the kingdom are primarily outdated F-5 models. After oil prices rose in 1999, Saudi officials began to look at purchasing more F-15 models. Increased internal security risks, however, diverted the funds that would have been necessary for such acquisitions. Currently Saudi Arabia has 291 combat aircraft, but most are nearing obsolete status. It is thought that Saudi Arabia is preparing to make a major investment in modernizing its air force. Speculation continues that the kingdom’s air force will purchase a fleet of 50 Eurofighter “Typhoon” aircraft.
Military Service: The Saudi military is an all-volunteer force. Females do not serve in the Saudi military.
Paramilitary Forces: Saudi Arabia’s paramilitary forces number more than 15,000 men, with 10,500 active troops in the Frontier Force and 4,500 in the Coast Guard, which is based at Azizam. Saudi Arabia also has a Special Security Force with 500 personnel.
Foreign Military Forces: Before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, about 5,000 U.S. military personnel, mostly air force, were stationed in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden labeled this force “infidel troops” guarding over Islam’s most holy sites. During 2003, the U.S. military redeployed most of its forces to Qatar, leaving a contingent of about 500 in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also provides a base for the 10,000 troops of the Peninsula Shield Force, the fledgling multinational force created by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Military Forces Abroad: Although Saudi Arabia maintains an extensive military infrastructure within its borders, it has the expressed policy of avoiding foreign deployment except as required to protect the kingdom’s direct security.
Police: The police force is controlled by the central government through the Ministry of Interior. The Saudi Arabia National Guard contributes significantly to security efforts. The mutawwiin are the nation’s religious police, which enforce compliance with religious strictures.
Internal Threats: Neither petty crime nor organized crime is a problem in Saudi Arabia, although comprehensive statistics are not available. However, Saudi Arabia’s quest to be both a modern and Islamic country has long aroused unrest. Connections to the West have caused some factions to call for the overthrow of the Al Saud ruling establishment. Minority groups of the left and the right seek to have more influence in the nation’s governance. High unemployment and a generation of young males filled with contempt toward the West pose a significant threat to Saudi stability. Additionally, the Shiite minority, located primarily in the eastern region of the country, has created civil disturbances in the past and could do so again. The presence of more than 5 million foreign workers also is thought by some to represent a threat to national stability. Finally, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia have risen, most recently in December 2004, with the attack on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah, making it clear that Saudi Arabia does harbor indigenous terrorists with probable ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
The vast and varied territory of the kingdom makes national cohesion difficult. But despite elements of corruption within the vast family structure, the Al Saud royal family has largely succeeded in maintaining stability in the country. High oil prices have led to increased government revenues allocated for internal security measures. Use of the National Guard as well as other internal security forces and harsh punishments have largely curbed violent manifestations of civil unrest since 2000. Protection of the vital oil industry has long been and continues to be a priority. Saudi Aramco employs nearly 5,000 security personnel to guard its oil facilities, and both the Saudi National Guard and the Saudi military frequently are called upon to guard oil-producing facilities and pipelines. These measures have largely controlled attacks against the oil industry.
Terrorism: The Saudi government has increased efforts to fight terrorist elements within its own borders, and the Saudi army has been successful in detaining several key militant/terrorist leaders in recent years. However, a series of bombings in 2003 and an attack on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah and two car bombings in Riyadh in December 2004 are evidence that al Qaeda-linked elements still exist in the country. Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, and fifteen of the suicide boomers carrying out the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens. If Saudi Arabia continues to liberalize its society, the recruitment of Saudi militants to engage in jihad against the United States and the West will likely continue.
Saudi Arabia is not among the Middle East countries that officially support terrorist groups, but the United States remains concerned about Saudi Arabia’s financial ties to terrorism. Many experts contend that Islamic networks originating in Saudi Arabia provide the financial backing for terrorist groups that operate in the Middle East and around the world. In 2004, however, the U.S. government praised Saudi efforts to combat terrorist financing. The fact that many militant groups are mosque-based makes government crackdowns difficult, but as a result of the spate of terrorist attacks in Riyadh in 2002-4, Saudi Arabia has accepted the need to continue the crackdown on militant elements in the country. In independent conversations, as well as in a consensus reached by leaders of the Arab League, Saudi officials have acknowledged that violence-inciting mosques and radical clerics cannot be ignored in the fight against terrorism.
Human Rights: The U.S. State Department annual report on human rights voices concern over several aspects of Saudi society. The report notes the lack of elected officials or political parties and the almost unlimited power of the ruling crown prince. It cites reports that internal security forces (including the police, the muttawwiin, and the National Guard) have committed various human rights offenses, including torture and abuse of detainees, as well as reports of arbitrary arrests and intimidation of non-Muslims and foreigners. Moreover, the legal code permits corporal punishment, such as flogging, as well as amputation, stoning, and execution by beheading, although the imposition of such punishments reportedly has declined.
Freedom of speech and press are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia, although some reforms are underway. The government owns the television and radio companies and heavily subsidizes the country’s newspapers. Both in law and practice, the Saudi government makes little pretext of providing freedom of religion. Non-Muslims are afforded the right to practice their own religion only in private, and conversion from Islam to another religion is illegal, punishable in theory, if not in recent practice, by execution. The rights of women are improving, but they are still far from equal to those of men. For example, women are restricted from driving or traveling without a male family member, and they must demonstrate significant cause in order to obtain a divorce while men are not required to do so. Women still face discrimination when entering non-traditional fields and frequently are segregated from their male co-workers. Women were not afforded the right to vote in the recent municipal elections.