Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Saudi Military Spending Fails Test Country's Inability to Defend Itself despite Well-Equipped Forces Becomes an Issue of Concern

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Saudi Military Spending Fails Test Country's Inability to Defend Itself despite Well-Equipped Forces Becomes an Issue of Concern

Article excerpt

NEARLY every evening, Saudi television viewers are treated to splendid footage of their expensive, high-tech Army at work. United States-made F-16 fighter jets swoop by in tight formation. Ground-based missiles pluck mock enemy planes out of the sky. Smartly dressed troops parade in front of an admiring King Fahd and his royal entourage.

Such scenes have been reassuring for the many years Saudi Arabia has been at peace with its Gulf neighbors. But now that the kingdom has been forced to appeal for massive outside reinforcements to deter an Iraqi invasion, many Saudis are asking, in effect, "Where's the beef?"

"Where's the fantastic army that so many billions were spent to create?" asks an exasperated Saudi, voicing a concern heard increasingly around the kingdom in the aftermath of Iraq's conquest of Kuwait.

"We've spent billions building up our military and we still have to ask for outside help," complains another Saudi, a businessman from Jiddah. "It makes you wonder why we are spending all this money if there's no utility in it?"

Fair questions, many military experts respond. Huge military budget Each year Saudi Arabia allocates nearly half of its budget to defense. As a percentage of gross national product, the kingdom spends almost the same as Israel, the region's strongest military power.

Yet, despite such impressive outlays, Saudi Arabia's small volunteer Army of 65,000 has proved no match for the nation that has long been one of the kingdom's most obvious potential adversaries, Iraq.

One explanation offered by Saudi officials is that the kingdom has placed its priority on domestic development rather than the kind of headlong quest for regional military supremacy pursued by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Within the limits imposed by these priorities, Saudi officials say, their objective has been to create a small, efficient fighting force based on the deterrent power of a strong air force and sophisticated antimissile systems.

With such a vast area to defend (Saudi Arabia is as big as the US east of the Mississippi) and with so little manpower to defend it (the kingdom has population of 13 million), these officials add, there is no way massive Iraqi-style ground forces and tanks can be effectively utilized.

The main reason Saudi Arabia was caught short by the Iraqi invasion may have more to do with politics than military strategy, say many independent analysts. Having learned from the experience of countries like Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq, where military coups have toppled monarchies, Saudi rulers have simply chosen not to take the risk of creating a large standing army.

"They see that a large army could do more to threaten internal security than to defend the kingdom," observes a Western diplomat in Saudi Arabia.

"A huge build-up would create its own values, its own language, it's own power center," adds a private Saudi defense analyst. …

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