Though nations can't choose their location, they can determine how to deal with geographic realities. Surrounded by states with great ambitions, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is as large as the United States east of the Mississippi and has vast wealth for a relatively small population. Not only does it have huge oil reserves; its extensive coastlines on both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf overlook nearby vital sealanes. It also has long borders with neighbors. Despite its size, most oil fields as well as many ports and urban centers are close to other local power. Saudi Arabia must weigh the implications of its geostrategic location and international politics as various states pursue dominance in the area. This applies not only to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, but also to the Horn of Africa, another area suffering from chronic instability.
As population growth changes demographic trends around the world, manpower shortages in Saudi Arabia are significant over the near term compared to some of its neighbors. Thus Riyadh has found it prudent to modernize its military and acquire advanced weapons. But future increases in population require allocating considerable resources to meet domestic needs such as education, housing, and medical services.
Saudi security policy, like that of other countries, must protect territorial integrity, economic wellbeing, cultural values, fundamental beliefs, and the system of government. The past two decades have demonstrated that sound policy must focus on regional security in a broad sense. The Saudi people must be ready to meet external threats to their country and the region. Change in other countries can also impact the stability of the area as a whole. Aggressive actors must be confronted by a military capability that can persuade and, if necessary, compel them to refrain from expansionist tendencies.
A look at the Persian Gulf in recent decades reveals threats emanating from two states, Iran and Iraq. The former tried to expand its influence under the Shah and occupied islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates in the early 1970s. The current regime established an Islamic republic in 1979 and continued to be a regional threat while introducing new ideological and political risks. Iran did not refrain from publicizing its intention to spread instability in radical terms. It attempted in the 1980s to foment instability in the kingdom during the Haj and cause trouble among Shiites in Bahrain and Kuwait. Even if moderate forces prevail, Saudi Arabia must compete with Iran and its sophisticated arsenal.
The other danger to Saudi security is Iraq. While Iran posed a challenge under a banner of radical Islam, Iraq appealed to pan-Arabist sentiments for redistributing wealth and championing the Palestinian cause. But rather than sharing resources and engaging Israel over Palestine, the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. While the future is uncertain, Saudi policymakers must take into account not only the possibility that Saddam may retain power. The repercussions may be either a fragmented Iraq or the emergence of a new regime in Baghdad committed to redrawing its borders.
Finally, Saudi Arabia had to consider the stability of its southern borders. This issue dates back to the 1960s and earlier, when its policies clashed violently with Egypt over Yemen, leading to a border war. Later the Yemeni civil war created instability and produced a refugee problem.
One thrust of Saudi security policy in the 1980s and 1990s was modernizing air defenses to deter potential enemies. The decision to gain a qualitative edge to compensate for the demographic limitations and long borders was particularly significant. Modernization enabled the Saudi military to fight effectively against first-line Iraqi forces in Desert Storm, and the force has become strong enough to deal with low-intensity threats and reduce the number of American reinforcements that would be needed for mid-intensity contingencies. …