Saudi Arabia Can’t Win Its Own Battles
A good reason for the kingdom not to wage them
Saudi Arabia has relied heavily on air power since its campaign against the Houthis in Yemen began more than two years ago. The kingdom has also sought help from other countries for the ground war—because Saudi Arabia cannot win wars on its own.
Saudi Arabia sought to substitute its lack of a large standing army by calling on Pakistan to provide soldiers, ships and warplanes. Pakistan refused. Egypt did join the Saudi coalition in Yemen but did not provide ground troops to help Riyadh decisively take the fight to the Houthis.
Egypt under Pres. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has maintained close ties with the Saudis. Riyadh welcomed Sisi’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and provided the necessary capital to prop up his regime. Sisi floated the idea of contributing 30-40,000 troops to the Yemen war, according to Al Arabiya. But Egyptian officials vehemently denied this claim, and relations between the two countries have frayed.
“Saudi Arabia had asked Egypt to send ground troops but we said a definite no to this matter,” one official told the newspaper. “This is one of the main reasons for the recent dispute between the two countries.”
The Gulf States, of course, possess infantry and armored forces. In the Saudi case, these forces—at best—serve in a defensive role and are incapable of projecting significant power beyond the kingdom’s lengthy borders. This has long been the case.
Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1990, the U.S. government was taken aback at how quickly Saudi Arabia acceded to a request to base U.S.-led coalition soldiers on its territory.
The Saudis knew their own forces, while possessing advanced weaponry, could not hold back any Iraqi incursion for long. They estimated that the Iraqis had the capability to overrun the kingdom’s eastern province, its largest, in as little as six hours—had they attacked about a week after conquering Kuwait.
Following the Gulf War, the proposed Damascus Declaration would have kept Egyptian and Syrian soldiers in Kuwaiti and Saudi territory to fight off any future Iraqi threats—and Saddam, indeed, appeared to have considered a second invasion in October 1994. Egypt and Syria had a combined troop presence of 70,000 in the region at the end of the Gulf War.
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were unwilling to provide $15 billion worth of aid in exchange for the troops, and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council were wary of Egyptian and Syrian armies staying there too long. The plan never got off the ground and U.S. troops remained in Saudi Arabia as the guarantor of the kingdom’s security until 2003 when they abolished any residual threat from Iraq by overthrowing the regime there.
Today the Saudi army has an estimated 75,000 full-time personnel, a modest size for a country of around 31 million in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
Recent talks between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over the deployment of a brigade of Pakistani soldiers to defend the Saudi-Yemeni border from Houthi attacks raises further questions about the ability of the Saudi army to effectively defend the kingdom’s borders.
This comes at a time when Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and minister of defense, the 31-year-old Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, the man credited with the kingdom’s more interventionist policies in recent years, upped the war of words with Iran. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said during a televised interview on May 2, 2017.
If the Yemen campaign is anything to go by, it’s doubtful Saudi Arabia could live up to this threat.
Saudi Arabia buys all of its air and armored hardware, often at inflated prices, from the United States and Europe. The White House is currently negotiating a 10-year, $110 billion arms sale to the kingdom which includes warships, aircraft and guided bombs. Riyadh has no significant indigenous arms industry or means of sustaining its current inventory by itself.
The kingdom hopes to change this through the establishment of a new state-run arms company called Saudi Arabia Military Industries. The company plans to manufacture ammunition, vehicles and radars while lessening the country’s reliance on arms imports in the process.
“The question is whether a state like Saudi Arabia can assert military dominance on the regional scale based on imported arms, while its nemesis Iran has achieved remarkable self-sufficiency in armaments,” Mohammed Nuruzzaman observed in The National Interest.
Saudi Arabia’s reliance on air power have also shown poor results in Yemen, where U.S.-supplied bombs have devastated the country but failed to uproot the Houthis. Nevertheless, there is a logic to Riyadh’s focus on air power, which derives from how Saudi generals understand their environment. Kenneth Pollack noted in his important 2002 book Arabs at War that the Saudis have long “heavily favored the air and air defense forces.”
The reason, according to Pollack, is that “only air forces could be employed against hostile forces attacking by air, land or sea,” and because the Saudi air force “could be based centrally and then deployed quickly anywhere in their vast realm, allowing the Saudis maximum flexibility in shifting their strength to meet a threat.”
Protecting Saudi Arabia from outside foes is only half of the strategy. The other half is political, as Saudi elites want to ward off internal enemies, too. Riyadh was “more willing to build a small, competent air force—whose loyalty could more easily be assured—than a large ground force,” Pollack wrote.
Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, most of the threats Saudi Arabia faced were airborne. Namely, “Egyptian bombings in the 1960s, Israeli ‘touch-and-go’ passes at Saudi airfields in the 1970s and 1980s, and an Iranian-Saudi dogfight over the Persian Gulf in 1984,” in which Saudi F-15s shot down an Iranian F-4 Phantom II that breached the kingdom’s airspace over the Persian Gulf.
Interestingly, that action reassured the United States, which worried that the Saudis did not possess “the political will” to forcibly defend their own airspace, despite possessing a formidable fleet of fighter jets armed with sophisticated air-to-air missiles. Even then, the Saudis relied on the United States for mid-air refueling and intelligence gathering, via AWACS control aircraft, to guide their jets toward the Iranian Phantom.
More than 30 years later, the Saudi military is still heavily dependent on America for its warfighting. The U.S. Air Force has carried out 1,778 tanker sorties with “about 54 million pounds of fuel off-loaded in support of Saudi operations in Yemen” since April 2015, the Pentagon revealed in February 2017.
In short, the kingdom cannot meaningfully sustain a bombing campaign over its impoverished southern neighbor without the logistical, and military support, of the United States. Which is one reason—of many—why it should opt not to do so. And if Saudi Arabia thinks it can wage an air war over Iran … forget about it.