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Swords & Missiles:The Search for Security


The World Creeps Closer

Fahd bin Abdul Aziz

Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz

Naef Bin Abdul Aziz

Salman Bin Abdul Aziz

Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz

Within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves lie in 865,000 miles of largely empty land, bordered on two sides by 1300 miles of coastline fronting two seas. All this must be defended by a population of perhaps six million people, three-quarters of whom are women, children, and the elderly. Saudi Arabia's vulnerability to outside attack, on one hand, and internal chaos, on the other, has haunted the kingdom since its inception. Through a combination of internal control and consummate diplomatic skill, kings Abdul Aziz and Faisal wound their way through the foreign and domestic minefields surrounding them. Their successors have done less well. Struggling with far more serious problems, the present leadership is intimidated and confused in its response to the escalating threats to the kingdom. Tied up in the recurring dilemma of balancing its own political interests against the interests of the country, the Rouse of Saud keeps the military fractured into several competing forces. These forces are, in turn, overwhelmed by a grim shortage of manpower and a culture that frustrates the basic requirements of military organization. Now facing serious threats from Islamic fundamentalism spurred by Iran and the hard-line Arab states and profoundly questioning the value of its alliance with the United States, the House of Saud in a desperate attempt to defend the kingdom has laid Saudi Arabia's security on the altar of high technology, sold and serviced by the West.

The fragile military establishment in Saudi Arabia has always played the dual role of defending the country and protecting the royal family from its internal opponents. Historically, the House of Saud has trusted its internal political interests to its Bedouin army. What is now the National Guard, an integral part of the current military structure of Saudi Arabia, was originally a military organization formed from tribes loyal to the king and pledged to defend his personal safety. The National Guard grew out of the 1929 Ikhwan revolt, which nearly destroyed the regime of Abdul Aziz. The Ikhwan were fanatical religious zealots who rose against the king when Abdul Aziz refused to allow his former allies in the unification of the kingdom to stage tribal raids beyond Saudi Arabia's borders. Fearing the raids would result in armed conflict with the British in Iraq, Abdul Aziz gambled his kingdom by turning on the rebellious Bedouins. It took two years before Abdul Aziz crushed his enemies. The decisive battle took place at Sibilla on March 29, 1929, and was "the last great Bedouin battle ever fought, the last in the series which had continued since the time of Abraham." * But the revolt was not to end until Abdul Aziz mechanized his army. Word reached the king that the rebel leader, Faisal al-Du wish, had once again mobilized his forces in the al-Hassa. Commandeering every automobile from Mecca to Jeddah, Abdul Aziz's army raced seven hundred miles across Saudi Arabia with no spare parts and no mechanics. Although they arrived in the al-Hassa in broken-down wrecks riding on their axles and held together with leather thongs, the sight of an army no longer dependent on camels was enough to cripple the spirit of the rebels, and the rebellion ended. Rather than punishing the participants, Abdul Aziz settled the Ikhwan in communities and won their loyalty by creating a select pseudo-military establishment that tied the sheikhs and their sons to the power structure. Abdul Aziz's need to provide these Nedji tribesmen with employment and cash in order to keep them in their communities and loyal led him to institutionalize the ties of suzerain and soldier in the form of the National Guard. Through the guard, Abdul Aziz funneled money and favors to the major tribes to keep them passive and his kingdom united.

The National Guard remains the most visible branch of the military. Although the army, air force, and navy were strengthened after the oil boom, the guard still dominates the showcase events in which the king appears. As in ancient pageantry, dozens of men adorned in rich-colored vests proudly sit, stirrup to stirrup, astride flawless white Arabian horses. Above their heads, their green and white Wahhabi standards flap in the wind. As the king approaches, they draw their mounts into a rigid stance and grasp the hilts of the swords strapped at their sides. Releasing from their throats the loud guttural cry of the desert warrior, the guardsmen raise their drawn swords high above their heads in salute to their ruler. So the Bedouin army remains a kind of Praetorian guard for the House of Saud, the royal family's defense of last resort against internal opposition.

* David Howardh, The Desert King: A Li" of Ibn Saud (Beirut: Continental Publications, 1964), p. 168.

The Rouse of Saud assiduously cultivates its historic ties with its tribal force. Once a year the King's Camel Race, held under the auspices of the National Guard, gathers in the last of the Bedouins still wandering the desert. There they pit the best of their camels in a grueling eighteen-kilometer race across the moonscape plains of the Nejd. Days before the actual race, the participants, many of whom have sons serving in the National Guard, begin to collect. Gradually, the empty spaces beyond Riyadh's ultramodern King Khalid International Airport fill up. The camels, hundreds of them, are transported in from their grazing grounds, somehow folded up in the back of their owners' dinky Toyota pickups. In the camp, housing hundreds of people, veiled women hover near their tents behind the smoldering campfires while children play amid the cantankerous beasts on whose existence traditional society depended for centuries.

On the day of the 1984 race I arrived early. Staking out a choice spot on the crusty earthen hill that was the viewing stand for the Westerners, I spread out my small rug. As if to confirm the constant blending of old and new in Saudi Arabia, I was immediately approached by a Pakistani offering me a sample cup of a new soft drink called "Coka." Before I had finished swallowing the overly sweet cola, truckloads of National Guardsmen began to arrive, taking their places near the finish line. They were armed with small paddles, each with a number painted on it. Their assignment was to meet the riders as they crossed the finish line. As I watched, an officer carrying a swagger stick called the Bedouin soldiers to attention. They lined up. Each man turned his head sharply to the left and extended his arm to measure the distance to the next man. They held this perfect formation approximately three minutes before they began to sit down, a few at a time. Realizing what was happening, their commander shouted, ordered them to their feet, and lined them up again, over and over. Meanwhile, other guardsmen strutted and preened before the stands.

Most of the day at a camel race is spent waiting for the racers to appear. In good Saudi tradition, the race has no firm starting time. Instead, the racers accumulate far out on the desert, and when they do start it is two hours or more before they approach the finish line. Sitting in the sun on my rug, I watched the crowd and waited. The first clue that the camels were approaching was the excitement heralding the arrival of King Fahd and his guests. The royal entourage, which had followed the race across the desert, blazed by the viewing stand in one of those big luxury cross-country buses, escorted by six red customized Mercedes convertibles loaded with the king's armed guards. Just after them, I saw a long cloud of dust preceded by a grand parade of camels. They were running at full tilt in their absurd splay-legged gait, their riders clinging precariously to the back of the great humps. The field of approximately seven hundred made two passes in front of the spectator stands, with the royal bus and armed escort streaking by in pursuit of the leaders, before making the final pass toward the finish line.

Many of the camels refused to finish. The spent beasts balked as their riders repeatedly hit them with their whips before climbing down and leading their mounts off the track. One camel, the color of the dust that covered it, collapsed, trapping its head under its enormous body. I gasped, afraid it had died. But several Saudis on the sidelines dashed out to right it. There it sat on its haunches, looking dazed and puzzled but fit to race another day.

By this time I had also regrettably moved to the finish line. When the sweating, foaming camels crossed the line, an overpowering stench washed over the entire area. The fumes hit me, momentarily paralyzing my sense of smell, only to be followed by another wave of the numbing odor. The boyish riders, aged from about nine to fourteen, seemed immune to the smell; all that mattered was that they had finished. Each of the top five winners appeared before the king to receive his prize, which ranged from a GM water truck, a thousand bags of barley, and SR 35,000 ($10,294) in cash for first place, to a tent, seven hundred bags of barley, and SR 22,000 ($6,470) for fifth place. (The newspapers somehow felt it necessary to point out that the barley was for the camels.) The last I saw of the champion, he was driving his bright red water truck home, his head barely visible over the dash board.

The king departed, the expatriates boarded their buses, and the Bedouins loaded their complaining camels back into their Toyotas and struck their tents. They would return next year to renew their bond with the House of Saud.

The great camel race is evidence that despite the sophisticated hard ware that the oil boom bestowed on the National Guard, it has retained many of the characteristics of its early history. And these were the characteristics that served Abdul Aziz so well.

The Ikhwan, the precursor of the National Guard, provided Abdul Aziz with an army that although untrained could be mobilized and demobilized swiftly. The Bedouins were not needed for prolonged campaigns since Abdul Aziz's chances of becoming involved in a foreign war were small as long as he stayed within his own borders and out of the way of the major powers in the area. Except for the 1934 border dispute with his southern neighbor, isolated internal uprisings were the main threat to Abdul Aziz's rule. Therefore, a loosely organized, poorly defined military establishment was in his best interests. Conversely, a highly structured and visible military was not only Unaffordable but dangerous. An armed force with its own structure and staffed by people with a vested interest in the power of their organization did not fit Abdul Aziz's own unique political equation. Nevertheless, the resumption of oil production at the end of the Second World War forced Abdul Aziz and his successors to begin to think about protecting themselves from the events swirling on their borders.

To keep its enemies off guard, the House of Saud traditionally has kept the whole military structure clouded in shadowy obscurity. Outsiders had little knowledge of Saudi Arabia's defense capabilities until after World War II, when in 1950 an American military advisory group arrived in Riyadh to help Abdul Aziz organize his meager armed forces. But the Americans were not the first to attempt to bring some order to the Saudi military. The British, who had arrived six years earlier, had left in disgust when their mission was rendered impossible by the complexities of Saudi politics and culture. The frustrated British military experts found themselves unable to recruit adequate officer material, a situation compounded by the arbitrary granting of commissions to the king's relatives and friends. The already inadequate funds Abdul Aziz allocated for equipment routinely disappeared in the pipeline of corruption. The final blow came when the movements of the British mission within the country and its contacts with Saudi troops were all but forbidden for fear it might discover information Abdul Aziz chose to keep to himself. When the American mission arrived, the number of Saudi troops was still unknown, even though a nine-month survey of the Saudi defense establishment preceded the Americans' arrival. Three years later, they were able to estimate that there were probably some where between seventy-five hundred and ten thousand regular army troops. Another ten thousand might be commandeered from the king's personal guard, paramilitary police, and the Bedouins who were on the king's levy. By the time the Americans had formulated their estimates, the knowledge of the numbers and location of troops loyal to the House of Saud had taken on added urgency. The first challenge to the al Sauds' rather cavalier military strategy came from a combination of the founding of the state of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism under the sway of Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Saud ibn Abdul Aziz became king of Saudi Arabia in the year following Nasser's 1952 seizure of power in Egypt. Nasser's charisma among the Arab masses and his emotional appeal to Arab nationalism would buffet Saudi Arabia both internally and externally throughout Saud's reign and into Faisal's. Representing the Saudis' first confrontation with revolutionary Arab politics aimed at pulling down the Middle East's conservative monarchies, Nasser was the prelude to what has been Saudi Arabia's major foreign threat until Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini entered the scene.

Initially attracted to Nasser as a check against any move Jordan's King Hussein might make to regain the Hashemite kingdom his grand father lost to Abdul Aziz, * Saud invited the Egyptians to send a military training mission to Dhahran to try its hand at organizing the Saudi military. It was a move the House of Saud soon regretted. While Saudi Arabia was keeping a wary eye on Jordan, Nasser was moving toward rabid revolutionary rhetoric against the monarchies of the Middle East. Nasser's message took root in the kingdom, leading to a 1955 coup attempt by Saudi army officers against the House of Saud. King Saud mobilized his tribal army against the regular army, hastily patched up relations with Jordan, and turned for protection to the United States, a major opponent of Nasser and the developer of Saudi Arabia's petroleum industry. It was in the Nasser era that the strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was born. For the next twenty-five years, the American option would serve as the underpinning of all of the Saudis' defense thinking.

*Britain failed to support its ally, the Sherif Hussein, against Abdul Aziz during his drive to unify Saudi Arabia. Instead, Hussein's sons Abdullah and Faisal were placed on the thrones of the British mandates of Transjordan and Iraq.

But the American military guarantee could not protect Saudi Arabia from Nasser's ideology. In 1962 Saudi Arabia faced yet another threat from Egypt, this time along the kingdom's southern border in Yemen. A Nasser-inspired military coup in Yemen overthrew the traditional ruler, the Imam Badr. Fleeing to the north of the country, the imam gathered an army of friendly tribesmen for his defense. To bolster its stand Egypt poured an expeditionary force into Aden and southern Yemen. Alarmed that Nasser's troups would march north into Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud found itself facing its first serious foreign threat. The crisis had all the elements the House of Saud fears most: the defenselessness of the kingdom, the threat of revolution against its rule from its own military, and dangerous dissension within the royal family. The crisis in Yemen is deserving of some detailed scrutiny because Saudi anxieties and behavior during the war and its associated events have come to characterize the House of Saud's diplomacy and its military responses to all threats against the kingdom ever since.

To begin with, the al-Sauds were confused about how they should respond to the challenge. The House of Saud is always burdened with the possibility that a military defeat of its national army might lead to the renunciation of the king. Like a tribal sheikh, a king no longer regarded as able to provide for the security of his people falls victim to his rivals. For the House of Saud to send in an undisciplined, poorly equipped army against the Egyptian army invited defeat, which in turn invited revolution. Consequently, the House of Saud was willing, as it continues to be willing, to go to any lengths to avoid armed conflict. The second problem to emerge from the confrontation with Egypt was the split in the Saudi royal family. Again, this is characteristic of the House of Saud in times of stress over foreign threats. This episode of disunity simply happened to be more public than others. Prince Talal ibn Abdul Aziz and several other princes had been exiled from Saudi Arabia after they publicly called for a constitutional government that would impose restraints on the power of the royal family. Talal and the other royal dissidents who formed the Committee of Free Princes established themselves in Cairo prior to the coup in Yemen, apparently to be in readiness to claim leadership of Saudi Arabia if the Yemen adventure drove Saud and Faisal from power. *

*The House of Saud has an interesting way of handling its opponents. Abdul Aziz decided early on to make his enemies allies by returning them like lost sheep to the fold. Prince Talal and the Free Princes were eventually brought home, and Talal himself now holds an honored and visible position in the royal hierarchy.

But Saudi Arabia never went to war. Recognizing his country could not defeat Egypt, Faisal, crown prince and acting head of government at the time, used the kingdom's oil income to hire surrogates from among the tribes of northern Yemen to hold off the Egyptians. Having bought off Saudi Arabia's opponents in Yemen, which also fended off the challenge of the Free Princes, Faisal moved to divide the kingdom's military forces in order to keep the military weak and, therefore, out of politics.

While the disarranged army and cursory air force muddled along, the tribal levies, * numbering somewhere between ten thousand and sixteen thousand men plus an undetermined reserve force, became noticeably better organized. Still, they were equipped only with light arms, were largely untrained, and had little transport. Since they were considered loyal to the king, they were assigned the important jobs of guarding the Tapline (the major oil pipeline) and other strategic points not trusted to the army.

The Royal Guard, the elite of the military, had about twenty-seven hundred men, who were regarded by American intelligence sources as crack troops. The guard clustered around the king and existed solely for the protection of the House of Saud. Its members had received more training than any other branch of the military and possessed enough equipment to overpower the National Guard. The two together could roll over the ragtag army. This completed the military scheme. The National Guard checked the Royal Guard, which checked the army. No opponent could challenge the king without controlling at least two of these three independent forces.

The system worked. During the final episode of the succession struggle between Saud and Faisal, the divided military prevented Saud from staying in power against the wishes of most of the royal family. In 1964 Saud tried to reclaim the throne by calling out the Royal Guard and deploying it around his pink palace. The National Guard declared its support of Faisal while the army stayed neutral. Consequently, neither brother was in control of two of the three components of power. The stand-off ended when the commander of Saud's Royal Guard was surprised and captured by officers of the National Guard who arrived at his home in Riyadh's minuscule fleet of taxicabs.

With Saud finally gone and Faisal firmly in control, the military was reorganized once again. The Royal Guard was disbanded and the main body incorporated into the National Guard. The core, which still acts as personal guards of the king, went into the Ministry of the Interior. This new ministry hecame yet another element in the power configura tion. Its power is derived from its control of the Department of Public Security (the police), the Frontier Guards, the Coast Guard, and royal intelligence. Leaving the National Guard, or tribal force, as its own entity, Faisal also created the Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA) made up of the army, navy, and air force. To govern over the new military structure, the king appointed his conservative brother Abdul lah as commander of the National Guard and his progressive brother Sultan as minister of Defense and Aviation, positions both still hold. Fahd, the future king, became minister of the Interior.

* Variously called the white Army or the National Guard.

By 1967 the House of Saud had emerged intact from the war in Yemen and the internal crises it had triggered within the kingdom. Nasser had been forced to withdraw his support from Yemen because of his calamitous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The question of what to do about Saud's incompetent rule was finally settled. And a military equation that protected the House of Saud from its opponents had been formulated and put in place. The problem with the new structure - a problem that has never been solved - was that in trying to combine the administrative needs of the military with measures de signed to secure the power and privileges of the thousands of members of the royal family, Saudi Arabia wound up with a military that could not defend the country. This was of little concern to the House of Saud, for the confirmation of Faisal's wisdom in organizing the military in such a way that a coup d'etat against the ruling house was almost impossible was not long in coming.

In May 1969 a Nasser-inspired group colluded with segments of the Saudi military in a scheme to overthrow the House of Saud and replace it with a republic. Before the plan could be executed, the plot was discovered. The National Guard went on alert and the internal security forces in the Ministry of the Interior went after the culprits. As the layers of the Arab Nationalist Movement, the group responsible for the coup attempt, were peeled away, officers of the army and air force were exposed. Among them were sixty air force officers, the director of the Air Force Academy in Dhahran, the director of military operations, commanders of the military garrisons of the al-Hassa and Mecca, and a minor prince from the Sudairi family. The discovery of the plot led to waves of arrests and dismissals of officers of the regular military and senior civil servants. Although the rumor was unconfirmed, many believed the leaders were flown over the Empty Quarter and pushed out. Considering the seriousness with which the House of Saud regards challenges to its power, it was plausible that all might have suffered excessive punishments. But on one of my excursions into a hareem, I met a stunning Saudi woman in her mid-fifties who disproved the theory.

I had become engaged in conversation with the woman because I was fascinated to learn that although she had been married for many years she had always had a job, putting her in the vanguard of Saudi career women. Casually, I asked her what type of work her husband did. She lowered her head perceptibly and said he was "in business." Sensing she was going to say something else, I waited. She shifted slightly on the soft sofa and then looked directly at me, her eyes probing mine. "He used to be an important officer in the military until he was arrested during the trouble in 1969." I was so astonished that she would mention the episode at all, much less her husband's involvement in it, that I said nothing in response. Perhaps because of my silence, she again went on. Looking away from me toward a wall across the room, she related her tale in the tone of a philosophical journey through the past. Her husband had been arrested by the internal security forces and spent six years in jail somewhere in the central part of the country. She and her children were allowed to visit him from time to time. Other than being confined, he was treated well. She even spoke kindly of King Khalid, who had released her husband, along with the others involved in the plot, during the amnesty following Faisal's assassination. When she finished her story, she looked at me once more and said, almost passionately, "You know, none of the men wanted to overthrow the king. They just wanted to do things differently."

On the eve of the oil embargo, the al-Sauds had their house once more back in order. But two important truths about Saudi Arabia's military lingered as a result of the events surrounding the war in Yemen, the succession struggle, and the 1969 coup attempt. Both are still valid. The first was that Saudi Arabia discovered it was powerless in a military confrontation with its neighbors. Militarily, its troops and supplies were too limited to be an effective fighting force, and politically, the House of Saud could not chance a fight it would probably lose without risking revolution from its opponents at home. Second, the rivalries within the royal family coupled with threats to its rule from dissident elements within the kingdom mandated that the military forces be split so no one organization could dominate. One military force checking the other was good internal politics but left Saudi Arabia defenseless against foreign threats. Although bestowing great wealth on the kingdom, the 1973 oil embargo in some ways only increased the kingdom's security problems. No longer could it stand on the edges of the caldron of Arab politics. Its oil resources and its wealth forced it to become a player in the Arab struggle against Israel, and at the same time, whether the Saudis wanted to acknowledge it or not, Saudi Arabia became more dependent than ever on the United States for the technical and military assistance it needed to build any viable defense. The only thing the oil boom did not change was the kingdom's fundamental defense objectives.

Since 1948 Saudi Arabia has had three consistent security goals. The first is to keep Yemen disunited and weak so that it can neither recover the Assir lost to Abdul Aziz or be used by a foreign power as a base of operation against Saudi Arabia from the south. The second is to shore up the vulnerability of the oil fields to protect them from encroachment by a foreign power. The third of Saudi Arabia's security objectives, and the most difficult to orchestrate, is to maintain a stance against Israel that insulates the kingdom from the hostility of its Arab neighbors while at the same time allowing it to nurture its defense alliance with the United States. Despite all of its sudden wealth after 1973, Saudi Arabia quickly recognized that it was unable to translate money into military power. Its dearth of manpower, the technical ineptitude of its population, the political considerations of the House of Saud, and the dictates of the Saudis' own culture conspired to keep Saudi Arabia impotent. What the oil embargo did accomplish was to give the Saudis enough credit with its Arab neighbors to move ahead with its defense plans based on the American guarantee of security.

In 1974 Saudi Arabia adopted a ten-year military preparedness plan drawn up by its American allies. Under its provisions, the army by 1984 would increase from 45,000 men to 72,000; the air force from 14,000 to 22,000; and the navy from a few hundred men with almost no ships to 3,900 seagoing sailors. The National Guard was to stay at 35,000 men. Even with its expanded numbers, the armed forces would remain pitifully small, spread out across the kingdom's great land mass. No one envisioned Saudi Arabia fighting a war. The pivot of defense strategy was to adequately arm the Saudis so they could defend themselves long enough for their allies to arrive. The American plan sought to overcome as much as possible the lack of manpower by creating relatively small but highly mechanized land, air, and sea forces heavily endowed with fire power, ground and air mobility, strong air support, and the best infrastructure money could buy. By depending on high-tech weapons Systems rather than manpower, Saudi Arabia was to purchase its security from the West. In building the protective shield, Riyadh, al-Kharj, and Dhahran would be molded into one defensive triangle; Jeddah, Taif, and Mecca into another. The four corners of the kingdom, largely empty in '973, would literally be filled up with new or expanded military facilities. With the Empty Quarter employed as a buffer zone, Khamis Mushayt was designed to repel an attack from the Yemens. Tabuk, the main air base, looked toward conflicts centering around Israel. And at Hafar al-Batin a whole city would be built to create some defense on the empty plain that runs from the border with Iraq directly to Riyadh.

It was with the King Khalid Military City at Hafar al-Batin that the Saudis would test their ability to turn money into security. In 1976 Saudi Arabia began raising a city for a projected seventy thousand inhabitants out of a spot that is so isolated and so inhospitable that an unearthly aura hangs over it. Sitting in a wadi in the middle of a stark, barren desert, it is three hundred and fifty miles from Riyadh and, when construction began, four hundred miles from the nearest port. Its isolation made a staggering problem of logistics for men and materials. Building stocks were blocked in the congested ports or sat on the docks because there were no trucks to transport them to the site. Although the first men on the site worked out of tents, the mass of workers needed for construction of the permanent buildings could not be recruited until support facilities were in place. Unbearable heat and sand storms raged for days. In addition to all of this, the Saudis threw their own stumbling blocks in the way. There was a rule that no aerial photographs intended to locate sources of gravel could be taken for security reasons. The use of short-wave radios was so restricted by the military that communications were next to impossible. There were bureaucratic tie-ups within the bowels of the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The already severe labor shortages were made even worse by the Saudis' reluctance to use labor from any country suffering political unrest. And there were the ever-present visa problems. In just one instance, experts needed to fire up the generators that were to supply the site's major source of power refused to return to the kingdom. On a previous trip when they were sent by the American electrical equipment supplier to Saudi Arabia for two weeks, they found their stay forcibly extended for two months when the Saudis denied them exit visas to keep them on the job. The mutinous employees complained about their "shabby treatment" and that "slavery went out a hundred years ago," assailing their employer with a torrent of expletives. When I was typing and filing at the Corps of Engineers, I remember seeing an intercorps telex from the United States reporting on the progress in coaxing these experts back to Saudi Arabia. The go-between bluntly stated, "I get the impression these guys don't think much of playing with camels and walking barefooted in the sand."

The King Khalid Military City was in the early stages of construction when I finessed a permit to visit the site in late 1978. Very early in the morning, I arrived at the far end of the runway of the Riyadh airport to board the six-seater plane that ferried contractors, construction supervisors, and officials from the Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA) between Riyadh and al-Batin. The flight that morning was full, as it was every time it made the run, since the cadres of people demanded by such a mammoth construction project fought to get aboard. Ducking my head in the cramped cabin space, I took a seat facing a Saudi from MODA, who eyed me curiously but never spoke. The other passengers were contractors and engineers, who also ignored me, sensing, no doubt, that my presence was highly irregular. As soon as we were buckled in our seats, the motors sputtered to life, shaking the plane as the rpms mounted. We had barely cleared the ground before we were out over the desert. As the engines groaned through the dusty air for the next hour, I saw absolutely nothing below me except for the bleached gray of the packed sand of Saudi Arabia's northeastern desert. Not until the twin propellers of the small plane slowed signaling our descent did I spot the naked strip of black asphalt that marked al-Batin. The plane taxied to a stop on the empty runway, and I stepped out into what seemed like endless nothingness. Then I spotted my contact, signaling to me from underneath a ten-gallon hat. We hurried out of the sun and climbed into his four-wheel-drive vehicle, where I met the others responsible for my presence on what the Saudis liked to think of as a highly secretive military site.

AI-Batin was desolate. Except for a Bedouin camp on the edge of the construction site, the only sign of life I saw outside the small cluster of construction trailers was a stray donkey startled by the noise of the jeep. As we jarred over dirt roads that appeared to come from nowhere and connect to nowhere, my escorts pointed out small blue flags, barely visible, that marked the sites of future buildings. Construction, then in its second year, was expected to take five more, at an estimated cost of $1 billion per year. We eventually arrived at a stark obelisk that marked "Centrum," the center point of the future city, which someday would fan out in interlocking octagons of head quarters, housing, shops, mosques, and maintenance and training facilities. Leaving Centrum, I saw six Pakistanis standing next to a wheelbarrow and a hole in the ground that would someday be the maintenance shed for the sophisticated tanks scheduled to be stationed there. Another spot had a small motor perking along, drawing up water. This would someday be the water plant for the whole city. Looking at the advance cadre of construction workers and engineers clawing their way into the hostile desert, I thought it hardly seemed possible that they could build a city in this environment. Yet I knew that with enough money the Saudis could accomplish miraculous things. And so it was. The King Khalid Military City was eventually inaugurated by King Fahd in 1985, two years later than scheduled. After spending in excess of $5.2 billion on construction to house fifty thousand people, the total number of men in the entire Saudi army at the time it opened was no more than twenty-five thousand.

AI-Batin was more a monument to the dream of turning wealth into protection than it was a viable military establishment. But its construction had barely begun when the military and economic planners were already envisioning the expenditure of $100 billion on defense during the upcoming Third Development Plan. Most of this money was designated for infrastructure projects for every branch of the military. And much of the money would not be spent wisely. At al-Batin, away from the dirt and noise, beyond the cramped barracks of the manual laborers and the spartan trailers housing the engineers, the temporary VIP villas stood alone. Built especially to house King Khalid and his immediate entourage for one night when the KKMC site was dedicated, the villas had cost $3,246,352, including the accessories flown in from Tiffany's in New York.

The 1974 defense plan of which al-Batin was a component part was the most comprehensive and ambitious move Saudi Arabia had ever made in its own defense. Yet it had serious weaknesses, weaknesses that were inescapable for a country that had little to defend itself with except money. By adopting high technology as a basic strategy, Saudi Arabia bought a military structure that required absolute organization and technically sophisticated officers, administrators, and soldiers. These were qualities the Saudis lacked and that plagued every area of development Saudi Arabia undertook. But it was in the military perhaps more than any other sector of the new Saudi Arabia where Saudi culture so dramatically conflicted with modernization.

There is no military tradition in Saudi Arabia and little commitment to the concept of the nation-state. As fiercely independent individuals who survived on the desert for centuries with nothing but their own wits and fortitude, the Saudis are not about to submit to the discipline of the army. Family and tribe remain the center of any Saudi's existence, and for this reason it is difficult to keep the military recruits the country does have at their posts. Unit assignments are haphazard, as commanders respond to special requests from relatives or people in positions of power to place a particular man in a particular post. Then his assignment might never make it onto a central registry. If an alert is issued, both soldiers and commanders are left with no idea of where to report. Emergency situations become chaotic because so little importance is placed on routine training. The air force commonly has only 25 percent of its pilots appear at scrambling exercises and being absent without leave is an accepted military tradition in all branches of the armed forces. When the army was mobilized in March 1979 to meet the threat posed to Saudi Arabia by clashes between North and South Yemen, the first order of business was to issue frantic calls for missing soldiers who had simply drifted off. While U.S. military personnel were taking up stations in Riyadh, the only visible sign I saw of the Saudis' military alert was a lone truck pulling the Ramadan cannon down the main road to Mecca.

Since concerns beyond today have little place in the national psyche, maintenance depends more on Allah's will than it does on his suppliants. Lack of routine care turns sophisticated hardware into useless junk. This endless crisis of maintenance is not as much a matter of ability as of commitment. The forceful status system within the culture forbids a Saudi to work with his hands. As a result, Saudis can be trained to be excellent pilots but service and repair of their aircraft depend on the large numbers of foreign workers imported for almost all military support functions. If for no other reason, Saudi Arabia's defense strategy, built around sophisticated weapons requiring exacting upkeep, is fatally flawed by Saudi attitudes toward maintenance. Overall, the officer class is well trained and motivated. Yet no matter how competent the officer corps, Saudi Arabia's forces lack numbers and depth. While there is no problem in recruiting pilots to fly F-4s and F- 155, there is a chronic shortage of pilots for the forty-eight C-130 transport planes that tie the kingdom's defenses together. The lower in rank, the less competent and committed is the military man. Although there is as little glory in being a foot soldier in Saudi Arabia as there is anywhere else in the world, building morale is enormously complicated by the fact that those soldiers are basically Bedouin in their attitudes and patterns of behavior and not easily welded into cogs in a late-twentieth-century defense force. The contrast between the educated, status-conscious officer corps and the troops is no more graphically depicted than by the street vignette in which I saw an officer impeccably attired in his tailored uniform standing next to a private who was making his last stand for independence by refusing to put shoelaces in his combat boots.

The cultural constraints on military preparedness further aggravate the basic organizational nightmare inherent in the division of the military. The entire military structure is plagued by a shocking lack of coordination, both at the highest levels of command and between the branches. At the same time that it is committed to high technology that has cost billions of dollars, the kingdom's military is paralyzed by the rivalry between the religiously conservative National Guard and the generally progressive armed forces. They compete with each other for everything from elaborate officers clubs and favors from the king to legitimate requests for needed military hardware, thereby draining away both manpower and resources. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the mon archy, the long record of military coups in the volatile Middle East spearheaded by ambitious young officers proves the wisdom of keep ing military power equally divided between fiercely competing groups.

The National Guard, now numbering in the neighborhood of twenty thousand men, remains the most politically powerful division of the military. The ruling regime continues to rely on the tribal origins and the financial prerogatives of the guard to keep it loyal to the House of Saud. Coveted positions within the officer corps of the guard are se cured through the influence of fathers who have, in turn, proved their loyalty to the crown. Promotions of enlisted men are made by the commander, Prince Abdullah, while promotions of officers are made by the king himself. Although the National Guard originally filled a largely ceremonial role, it is now a heavily equipped, full-blown military machine.

The National Guard was not directly covered by the 1974 defense plan because of the House of Saud's insistence on keeping the affairs of the guard completely separate from the affairs of the regular military. Therefore, in March 1973, a seven-year agreement was con cluded between Saudi Arabia and the United States that put the U.S. Department of Defense in charge of three private American contractors hired to modernize the guard. At a cost of $335 million (raised to $1.9 billion in 1976), the guard's twenty battalions would be mechanized into infantry battalions with their own artillery support and air defense capability for its internal security functions and to back up the army in case of a foreign invasion. The Vinnell Corporation of Los Angeles, California, one of the contractors, hired a number of Vietnam veterans, largely logistics experts rather than Rambo-type mercenaries, to train the Saudis to be modern soldiers. *

The efforts are paying off. My first impression of the guard was of disheveled Bedouins who had been taken out of their thobes and put in an alien attire of pants, shirts, and combat boots. Looking more confused than competent, they slouched against walls or sprawled in the nearest shade, oblivious to military order or mission. Guard members now look comfortable, even snappy, in their olive drab uniforms topped by the traditional red and white gutra, held in place by an agal sporting the guard's insignia. When they are on parade, they march in unison and salute on command, at least most of the time. But although it is housed in impressive new headquarters and armed with sophisticated new weaponry, the guard, despite outward appearances, still re mains in attitude a Bedouin army.

I had been hearing from my friends at the National Guard Hospital near Riyadh about a malady among guardsmen that the impatient medics had dubbed the "Dead Soldier Syndrome." According to the re ports, it occurs when guardsmen are lined up to do calisthenics and presents itself as a type of hysteria where the patient feels faint and becomes stiff as a board. Arriving at the hospital by the busload, the victims are rushed into the emergency room, where they instantly kick off their shoes, open their pants flies, and yell "I need air." Believing the doctors and nurses were kidding, I stationed myself in the emergency room of the National Guard Hospital one day. Within an hour, the wide glass doors of the ambulance entrance swung open in a flurry of excitement, and a soldier, escorted by five comrades, shuffled in stiffly, leaning on a wheelchair. Through the shouting and gesturing flowing from the group, I realized that the man clutching the wheel chair was claiming that his limbs had become paralyzed by the day's exercise drill. It was an authentic case of "DSS" precipitated by the man's affront at being required to do physical training. As an orderly motioned him toward an examining room, he straightened his stiffened neck, looked around him, and announced to all within hearing that he was a Bedouin, a man of honor.

*One of the things Saudi Arabia got for its money was a cadre of experts from the United States who trained the Saudis in the art of desert survival.

The other arm of the modern military is the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, which administers the army, navy, and air force. Though it has a force larger than that of the National Guard, it does not enjoy the same political clout. Because the officer corps provides an appealing career choice for status-seeking young men without connections, its members come largely from the urban middle class, which is outside the network of family and tribal relationships that runs the country. The troops are primarily drawn from lower class non-Nejdis or former slaves. Since its personnel is drawn from groups who have a high potential for social discontent, the army is almost invisible in Saudi Arabia. Stationed in military cities near the border areas, the army is kept outside the strategic areas and therefore, the government hopes, outside the political arena.

The army can probably be managed. It is the air force that the House of Saud truly fears. Flying jets is an appealing career choice for the status-conscious Saudis. The air force attracts the elite of the military recruits. Young, traveled, and often Western-educated, pilots are more outspoken than any branch of the military about the excesses of the royal family. Their hostility to the top echelon is not as great as their resentment of the second and third tiers of royal relatives that continue to increase geometrically and which still demand their share of royal revenues. To maintain its critical viability in the defense of the kingdom while at the same time protecting the royal family against military coups, the air force is staffed as much as possible by bright young men from the House of Saud. The remaining positions are filled by men chosen more for their loyalty than their ability. To further frustrate potential coups emanating from the air force, commandants and wing commanders are constantly rotated, making it difficult for them to build up personal loyalties among the men they command.

Although it is usually assumed that the National Guard is the balance to the army and air force, it actually requires the combined re sources of the Ministry of the Interior with those of the National Guard to make the comparison of the relative strength of the tribal army and the regular forces valid. The Ministry of Interior through its command of the border guards and the civilian police has the capacity to put a significant force in the field. But it is through its control of the intelligence apparatus, the secret police, that the ministry's shadowy presence is most strongly felt. Ever since rebels seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca in November 1979, internal security forces have been draining manpower from the military. It is as if every time the military is used in a defensive capacity, it is reorganized in the hope that the new power configuration will create security. One of the government documents I saw while working on the Third Development Plan revealed that the Ministry of Interior in 1979 had more than 42,000 men engaged in actual fieldwork, supported by another 22,000 civil service employees. The ministry's manpower request for 1985 was a staggering 115,000, more than the army, navy, and air force combined.

The discovery of the duplicity of some elements of the National Guard in the Mecca uprising sent shivers through the royal family. The assumption had always been that the armed forces, not the House of Saud's own militia, would be the source of any insurrection. Although the major contingent of the National Guard stayed loyal, it appeared to spend as much time fighting the army as it did the rebels. And the competition for glory between their commanders paralyzed what operations were launched against the rebels. Commanders screamed conflicting orders to confused troops. The National Guard, the army, and security forces, if they fought at all, fought as individuals not units. It was the minister of Defense and Aviation, Prince Sultan, acting as a field commander, who finally bestowed order on the mass of confusion. The army and the National Guard performed so poorly at Mecca that King Khalid subsequently created a twelve-hundred-man special antiterrorist unit, which was equipped with helicopters and placed under the control of the Ministry of the Interior.

Besides keeping the military broken down into its component parts, loyalties to the royal family in all branches of the military are cultivated as other political loyalties are cultivated, with money and privileges. With the air force leading the way, officers are provided generous salaries and quality housing and treated to a whole range of fringe benefits. The first well-designed and well-constructed building to go up in Riyadh after the oil boom was the Officers' Club on Airport Road. Every time I passed by, its quiet dignity elicited a kind of awe amid the junky buildings that surrounded it. Looking like a country club in Palm Springs, it is heavily staffed with foreign waiters, who set the tables with gold-plated flatware and Limoges china. Now after a decade of heavy investment in the military infrastructure, every branch of the armed forces possesses impressive headquarters, academies, and sports facilities reserved for the exclusive use of the kingdom's guardians. The physical benefits that each branch of the military enjoys reflects to some extent the political power of its commander. For not only are the kingdom's military forces divided to protect the House of Saud against its enemies, they are divided to protect the royal family against itself.

In Saudi Arabia, where religion is politics, the military is part of the constant tension generated by the struggle between the religious conservatives and the progressives. Discord frequently rages within the mammoth royal family, where each camp possesses its own military power.

Prince Abdullah, commander of the National Guard, is King Fahd's half brother and is assumed to be next in line for the throne. Abdullah, regardless of his royal lineage, is pure Bedouin in his attitudes, making him beloved by his troops and the religious fundamentalists. The minister of Defense and Aviation, Prince Sultan, is a full brother of Fahd's and Abdullah's major rival. The Ministry of the Interior is under the control of Prince Naif, also Fahd's full brother but one who also has strong ties with the tribes. While Khalid was king, rumors periodically ran rampant about a new outbreak in the power struggle between Ab dullah and Sultan backed by Fahd. When Fahd became king, the major conflict was believed to be between the king and Abdullah. On at least two occasions alter Fahd assumed the throne, stories surfaced and were reported by the Western press that Fahd and Abdullah had engaged in an altercation in which one or the other had been shot. Prince Abdullah told Dan that one rumor had started when he was seen at Shamaizy Hospital visiting a friend. There are rows, but neither man is known to have been injured in what are probably verbal battles. Rather, the wild tales and the subsequent disclaimers confirm the existence of in tense rivalries among members of the upper echelon of the House of Saud, supported by various factions within the family. Insiders believe that the progressives were poised for a showdown with the conservatives when it was all interrupted by the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, forcing the family to pull together for survival.

Compelled to mend their fences with the National Guard after the uprising, the traditionalists in the House of Saud were once more on the ascendancy, causing Abdullah to rise noticeably in the public arena. Suddenly Abdullah's picture was everywhere. Rather successfully ig nored during the height of the oil boom as an embarrassment to the family, Abdullah was now obviously a public relations ploy for the House of Saud. His visits to the King Faisal hospital took on a certain fanfare, and the hospital's medical research center launched a study of diseases among the Saker falcons with which Abdullah hunts. After Khalid died, Abdullah, rather than being passed over by the Sudairi Seven, became crown prance apparently unopposed. Perhaps more interesting was that he retained his .command of the National Guard. There had been intense speculation that Abdullah would be forced to relinquish command of the guard on becoming crown prince. Instead, he gathered in both the political title as second to the king and the military position as commander of a major force in the military equation, one primarily responsible for protecting the royal family.

Before the oil boom and into the latter years of the 1970's, the royal family regarded its fragmented military establishment and its lack of military preparedness as a desirable thing. Internally, it preserved the political system. Externally, Saudi Arabia made no pretense of being a military power and obviously posed no real threat to its neighbors. But conditions had changed and Saudi Arabia was no longer an isolated desert kingdom. On the heels of its sudden wealth, forces beyond its borders began to draw Saudi Arabia into the whirlpool of international power politics. Avoiding any move that would make the kingdom a target of Israel, the Saudis still had to be concerned about leftist elements in the Arab world and clients of the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia's rulers found themselves facing a dilemma: a weak military was good politics, but was it good self-defense? Whether the House of Saud wanted to or not, the external situation demanded that manpower and weaponry be increased so that Saudi Arabia could forge some semblance of a defense force. But in the end, no matter what the Saudis did to arm themselves, the defense of the kingdom depended on the intervention of a foreign power. As the decade of the 1970's drew to a close, the manpower projections of the 1974 defense plan were obviously falling short. Although every time an external crisis arose there was talk of a military draft, everyone knew it was politically unacceptable to institute and impossible to administer. The use of foreign mercenaries was explored, but the House of Saud's paranoia and xenophobia made this unacceptable except in the most limited situations. Still depending on the strategy of the 1974 defense plan, the Saudis if attacked expected to employ delaying tactics until the Iranians, the backbone of United States strategy in the Arabian Gulf, arrived, followed ultimately by the Americans. By 1980, in the after math of the Iranian revolution, the political scene had changed so drastically that the underlying assumptions of the 1974 plan were dead.

Saudi Arabia's confidence in the reliability of the American defense commitment began to collapse when the Soviets made their moves on the horn of Africa. Despite dire warnings from the Saudis, the Carter administration essentially ignored the introduction of troops and sup plies from the Soviet bloc into Ethiopia in 1977. By the following year, the Marxists were in control of vital real estate directly across the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula. While north, across the Arabian Gulf, alarm bells were ringing in Afghanistan, which were heard in Saudi Arabia long before the message reached Washington. The blatancy of the Soviet attack on fighters of the Afghan mujahideen finally captured the attention of the Carter administration as to the realities of Soviet power politics around the gulf. Regardless of the success in arousing the American giant, Afghanistan remained a frightening reminder of the vulnerability of militarily weak states.

These were symptoms of instability in the gulf. The real threat to Saudi Arabia came when the kingdom's relationship to Iran and the United States was fundamentally and abruptly changed by two events:

the American-sponsored peace agreement between Egypt and Israel (1978) and the Iranian revolution (1979). The specter of Egypt making peace with the Arabs' sworn enemy fractured the Arab bloc. The confrontation states led by Syria rallied against the agreement and demanded that the moderate Arab states fall into line. Because of the kingdom's special relationship with the United States, the American promoted peace agreement between Egypt and Israel made Saudi Arabia a special target of Arab venom. At the same time, the United States was exerting firm pressure on the Saudis to join the peace process. Disagreement about the Saudi response to both the Americans and the Arab bloc raged among the senior princes and sent the pro-American Crown Prince Fahd into self-imposed exile for several weeks. Caution, as always, won out, and Saudi Arabia joined with the other Arabs in rejecting the peace accord. The American commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia emerged from the debate unbroken but perhaps bent more than either side recognized at the time.

Of even more immediate concern to the security of Saudi Arabia and the future of the House of Saud was the fall of the shah of fran. The Islamic revolution had turned Iran from a shield for Saudi Arabia into a major threat. While the Western press often fueled the perception that the House of Saud feared the territorial ambitions and military strength of the shah, the reality was more complex.

Saudi Arabia's problem in the Arabian Gulf was two tiered: at one level there was the threat of radical, hostile Iraq to the regimes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, and the related threat to oil facilities and transit; at another level there loomed the threat of Iranian hegemony and its potential implications. The Saudis could not do much by themselves to counter either danger. They essentially counted on Iran to check Iraq, and on the United States to check Iran.*

Although the Saudis were wary, they saw Iran as an important part of their security shield and also as a test of American honor of its commitments. Day after day of the final crisis of the shah, I read articles in the government-controlled Saudi press that superficially ex tolled the Islamic experiment in Iran but at the same time sent out subtle but passionate pleas for the United States to intervene in defense of the embattled ruler. Instead, the shah was allowed to fall, a ruler more strongly tied to the United States than the House of Saud ever was. Among the overlooked results of the Iranian debacle for the United States was the Saudi royal family's reaction to the shah's plight as a homeless exile. Regardless of a number of sound motives, there was no comprehension among the Saudi hierarchy about the refusal to grant the shah immediate asylum in the United States. The al-Sauds as a result came to believe that by tying themselves too closely to the United States they were guaranteeing neither the throne nor their personal pro tection in case of political turmoil. Furthermore, the United States not only had failed to move to protect the shah but had allowed a regime to come to power that was determined to destroy American presence in the gulf and to pull down the House of Saud.

* Nadav Safran, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security (Cambridge, Maas.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), p.214.

At the beginning of the 1980s, American policy toward Saudi Arabia and Saudi attitudes toward the United States were ambivalent. Since the oil embargo, relations between the two countries had been floundering over oil policy, the Soviet threat, Saudi nationalism, and the United States' reluctance to push Israel on a solution for the Palestinians. In many ways, the alliance was in danger of becoming a commercial agreement in which the United States sold hardware and expertise to the affluent Saudis and Saudi military and foreign policy stayed clear of the United States. This state of affairs was strengthened by Saudi Arabia's rejection of pleas to station American troops on Saudi soil. Although the presence of the United States military within the kingdom would prove the American commitment to Saudi Arabia's defense and make that defense infinitely easier in case the American option became a reality, the House of Saud would not assume the political risk. Fearing the reaction of the radical Arab states, Saudi Arabia chose instead to buttress its defenses by purchasing even more sophisticated hardware from the United States, which it would use to erect its own protective umbrella over the Arabian Peninsula. For the United States, the commitment to defend Saudi Arabia was still a vital part of its military policy in the Arabian Gulf. But for Saudi Arabia, the United States as the ultimate security guarantor in a grand strategic design was a concept that had failed.

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