Saudi Arabia National Security

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Armed Forces Overview:

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has devoted significant resources to improving its military. Flush with oil revenue, Saudi Arabia increased military spending in 2005 by 21 percent over the 2004 level. Military spending (US$25 billion) actually surpassed the budget allotment. The Saudi military consists of an army, air force, navy, air defense, and paramilitary forces with nearly 200,000 active-duty personnel. In 2005 the armed forces had the following personnel: army, 75,000; air force, 18,000; air defense, 16,000; and navy, 15,500 (including 3,000 marines). 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 for 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. There have, however, been tensions between U.S. and Saudi military objectives. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with the Taliban in 2001 following the terrorist attacks on the United States but later lambasted the U.S. decision to attack the country and refused U.S. requests to operate from Saudi soil. Saudi Arabia also declined to participate in the 2003 Iraq war.

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:

Following the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq 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 the fall of the Iraqi regime 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 Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran is also a source of concern among Saudi officials in view of its military strength, potential nuclear capabilities, ties to Hezbollah and other radical Shia Islamists, alleged meddling in Iraq’s civil unrest, and growing political influence in the region. Additionally, Saudi officials view the largely uncontrolled migration of tribesmen back and forth across the border from Yemen as a potential security risk. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen suffered fromYemen’s refusal to join the Gulf War coalition against Iraq and from 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$25.4 billion in 2005. Saudi Arabia ranks among the top 10 in the world in government spending for its military. Military expenditures represent about 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), down from 10 percent in 2002. 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 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. The air force is organized in seven fighter/ground-attack squadrons, six fighter squadrons, and seven 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, and it has ambitious plans to further upgrade its arsenal. In 2005 Saudi Arabia entered into an agreement with Britain to purchase 72 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter planes to replace its outdated Tornado planes. Additionally, Saudi Arabia plans to strengthen its National Guard by purchasing US$1 billion worth of armored vehicles from the United States.

The military already possesses a modern arsenal. 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, 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 11 principal surface combatants, 65 patrol and coastal combatants, 7 mine warfare vessels, 8 amphibious craft, and 7 support and miscellaneous craft. Naval aviation forces have 19 helicopters (armed) serving in naval support.

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The 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. If Saudi Arabia’s proposed purchase of British planes goes through, Saudi air power will be effectively modernized.

Military Service:

The Saudi military is an all-volunteer force. Females do not serve in the 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. During 2003, the U.S. military redeployed most of its forces to Qatar. As of 2005, the United States has about 300 troops 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.

Military Forces Abroad:

Although Saudi Arabia maintains an extensive military infrastructure within its borders, it has a policy of avoiding the foreign deployment of its troops except as required to protect the kingdom’s direct security.


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 Committees for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are the nation’s religious police, which enforce compliance with religious laws.

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 Province, has created civil disturbances in the past and could do so again. The government reportedly has expressed concern that instability in Iraq might promote restiveness among Saudi Arabia’s Shia population. The presence of more than 6 million foreign workers also is thought by some to represent a threat to national stability. Finally, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia have made it clear that Saudi Arabia does harbor indigenous terrorists with probable ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

An attack on Saudi Arabia’s most productive oil complex in February 2006 renewed concerns about protecting the country’s most valuable industry. 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.


Since the June 1996 attack by Iranian-backed terrorists on a Saudi military housing complex that killed 19 U.S. military personnel and wounded 500 people including 372 Americans, the Saudi government has increased efforts to fight terrorist elements within its own borders. The Saudi army has been successful in detaining several key militant/terrorist leaders. However, a series of bombings in 2003, an attack on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah and two car bombings in Riyadh in December 2004, and a February 2006 attack on an oil complex are evidence that elements linked to al Qaeda are present. Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, and 15 of the hijackers carrying out the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens. Recruitment of Saudi militants to engage in jihad against the United States and the West willlikely continue.

Saudi Arabia does not openly support terrorist groups, but the United States has expressed concerns about Saudi financial ties to terrorism. Islamic networks originating in Saudi Arabia reportedly provide financial backing for terrorist groups that operate in the Middle East and around the world. The fact that many militant groups are mosque-based makes crackdowns difficult, but Saudi leaders have now accepted the need to control militant Islamist elements in the country. Moreover, officials have acknowledged that violence-inciting mosques and radical clerics cannot be ignored in the fight against terrorism. In February 2005, Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever Counter-Terrorism International Conference. The government also began a public relations campaign discouraging religious radicalism and terrorism.

Human Rights:

The U.S. State Department annual report on human rights is critical of several aspects of Saudi society. The report notes the lack of elected officials or political parties and the almost unlimited power of the king. Municipal elections have not abated concerns that the royal family holds too much power. The report finds that internal security forces have committed various human rights offenses, including torture and abuse of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation of non-Muslims and foreigners. The legal code permits corporal punishment, such as flogging, as well as amputation, stoning, and execution by beheading, although the use 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 country’s 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 may only practice their religions 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 cannot drive or travel without a male family member, and women 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 of employment and frequently are segregated from their male co-workers. Women were not permitted to vote in the recent municipal elections. The Basic Law does not guarantee the right to assemble, and the Saudi Government strictly limits the practice.

~Library of Congress,2006~

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