Trends in Saudi National Security

By Kechichian, Joseph A. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Trends in Saudi National Security

Kechichian, Joseph A., The Middle East Journal

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia reassessed its national security policy, increasingly relying on its nascent military power. Even if Iraq was militarily weakened, Saudi Arabia perceived Baghdad as a long-term regional hegemon. Likewise, the recent thawing in Saudi-Iranian relations notwithstanding, Riyadh remained wary of revolutionary Iran. Finally, the perennial Yemeni threat was re-awakened with a vengeance, potentially engulfing both countries in a disastrous confrontation. Against these threats, Riyadh shouldered new security responsibilities, as its military role in the Gulf region evolved.

Flowing the 1991 coalition victory over Saddam Husayn's Iraq, Saudi Arabia emerged as an important new power in the Persian Gulf region, capable of influencing security affairs for the balance of the century. As a direct consequence of its decision to host an estimated 700,000 foreign troops, and its participation in the 1991 Gulf War, Riyadh stiffened its back and shelved its cherished non-interventionist policies of the past. By standing up to Saddam Husayn, Saudi Arabia became, at least in modern political jargon, a real and substantial power. Still, the kind of power that Saudi Arabia held brought with it responsibilities, as well as challenges.'

With the end of the Gulf War, Riyadh and its conservative partners participated in postmortem discussions, had a substantial say in settlement debates to determine Iraq's future, and contemplated a full-scale militarization of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. By early 1999, it was clear that a victorious Saudi Arabia could not favorably entertain a discussion of arms control (over weapons of mass destruction) in the region, when Iran-and to a certain extent Iraq-were involved in deploying such weapons. Saudi Arabia was also concerned by the Israeli nuclear threat to the entire Middle East, which, at least for the foreseeable future, was likely to influence its own acquisition decisions. Under the circumstances, Riyadh could not foreclose the possibility of acquiring non-conventional weapons. On the contrary, the Al Sa'ud (the ruling family) were arguing, and will probably continue to insist, that their support of the UN-sponsored, Western-led, anti-Saddam Husayn coalition placed them in a strategic bind, leaving them to defend themselves as best they could. Consequently, the Al Sa'ud contended that the need to defend the Kingdom from regional hegemons had not abated. Moreover, Saudi rulers insisted that their concerns included-in addition to Iran and Iraq-Yemen, an increasingly important country in light of its unification, newly discovered oil wealth and re-stated penchant for Arab nationalist policies. Finally, Riyadh devoted a great deal of attention to internal security, to quell potential challenges. How the Al Sa'ud perceived regional threats was key to understanding recent trends in the military, including implications for Riyadh's key Western ally, the United States.


For decades, the chief regional threat to Saudi Arabia was from secular, socialist Arab nationalism, supported by the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, Nasserism dominated the Arab world's political discourse, resulting in a split between conservatives and radicals. For Egypt at that time, of course, Saudi Arabia was the most prominent conservative Arab adversary. By the end of the 1980s, the threat of Arab radicalism had receded, but Riyadh was very much concerned by the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, threats within the Gulf region preoccupied it even more. Iran, Iraq, and Yemen posed immediate threats to the Al Sa'ud throughout the 1990s, and are likely to challenge Saudi Arabia in the future as well.

The Islamic Republic Of Iran

Saudi Arabia displayed a keen perception of the challenge posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran when the Shah was overthrown. Beginning in 1979, Riyadh perceived Tehran as a destabilizing force in the Gulf region, primarily because of Iran's repeated attempts to export its revolution. …

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