Why the Saudis can't defend themselves


December 16, 1990|By Robert Ruby

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia By calling on foreign troops to defend it against Iraq, Saudi Arabia has inadvertently raised unwelcomed questions at home about how the country could spend billions of dollars buying arms but remain incapable of defending itself.

The arrival of the foreign forces, including more than 260,000 Americans, has encouraged citizens to question the wisdom of the kingdom's enormous defense expenditures. It also has highlighted the government's insecurities about its own army, a force the regime has purposely kept small to ensure that it did not challenge the monarchy.

"Members of the upper classes are doing a lot of reflecting, and they're asking, 'What have we done with our billions?' " a Western military analyst said. "They have to face the fact that they invested billions, but that billions didn't suffice."

For more than a decade, Saudi Arabia has been on an extended shopping spree that has made the kingdom one of the world's largest buyers of arms. Between 1980 and 1989, it invested roughly $200 billion in defense, including $30 billion for weapons and support equipment supplied by the United States. In 1988, the year Saudi Arabia placed a multibillion-dollar order with Britain and West Germany for advanced Tornado fighter-bombers, 10 percent of the kingdom's military purchases were with the United States. In 1989, the U.S. share of Saudi purchases rose to 15 percent.

Saudi Arabia has had to build a military establishment virtually from scratch and did so quickly. The rapid buildup reflected the kingdom's changing from an isolated nation of little strategic interest into a state whose oil reserves gave it influence over the world economy.

The wealth helped justify the purchases, as the kingdom's oil revenues attracted the envy of neighboring states, including Iraq. Saudi Arabia's Moslem rulers also were reacting to the threat of destablization posed by the Islamic revolution in Iran, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. He openly disparaged the monarchy's religious credentials and threatened to incite Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority to rebellion.

By all accounts, Saudi Arabia has built bases and support facilities second to none; U.S. military commanders seeing them for the first time praise them lavishly and express envy at their modernity and comfort.

While the bases are impressive, the Saudi forces that use them are less so. More than half of the country's expenditures were for building the infrastructure, but military analysts say an economy drive began as soon as it came to providing troops.

Saudi Arabia's army and air force have a combined total of about 65,000 men. They must defend a land area larger than all of Western Europe. An additional 25,000 men are members of the National Guard, a highly trained police force that provides security for the country's oil fields and -- most importantly -- protects members of the ruling family.

It's not by accident that the government kept its army small. Saudi Arabia's rulers were well aware of the long history of violent relations between armies and Arab monarchies, and that history was a convincing argument against creating a large, effective military force.

Since World War II, military officers have brought down royal dynasties in Egypt, Iraq and Libya, repeatedly threatened the kings of Jordan and Morocco and created turmoil in Syria and Sudan.

Saudi Arabia settled for trying to deter an attack through the sheer volume of its military purchases, even if what it bought one year was hard to integrate with what it had bought before.

"They were buying from a catalog," a military analyst said. "If someone convinced them something was worthwhile, they were buying it.

"They just bought it and put it in a warehouse where everything has been collecting dust. God knows, there are things that have never been used."

Saudi Arabia bought medium-range SS-2 missiles from China when the Iran-Iraq war was at its peak and each side was launching missiles against the other's capital. The United States warned Saudi Arabia against getting the missiles, saying they could start a destabilizing Middle East arms race.

Experts suggest that the Americans should not have worried, because the kingdom bought a notably ineffective weapon, a missile carrying a very small conventional warhead and of doubtful accuracy. "It goes 'bang' but nothing more," a second analyst said. "They bought something absolutely obsolete."

Some senior officers are said to be anxious to change the military purchasing system, but that is an especially sensitive topic. To argue for change is to criticize the status quo and its patrons, many of them royal. "This officer group exists," the analyst said, "but it has to fight the old groups who don't care the least what is good for this country."

Saudi Arabia's leaders knew their forces were too small to offer a credible deterrent by themselves, even against threats less ominous than the one posed by Iraq, and counted on hired help.

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