Gulf Pulse

Saudi Arabia shifts to more assertive defense doctrine

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Article Summary
The kingdom is considering how to more effectively project its role and power in the region to compensate for the decline of Western influence.

In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, the political landscape has shifted dramatically in the Middle East and the wider Arab world. Many Arab countries — primarily Syria, Libya and Yemen — continue to face civil war, social unrest and governmental disarray. Even Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain still continue to face civil disobedience by organized groups using terror to achieve their objectives. Directly in the midst of this turmoil sits Saudi Arabia, internally immune to such chaos, yet facing a long and developing list of regional issues as it takes up the security mantle of responsibility for an Arab world that is staring into the abyss of war and destruction.

What is needed now is for the kingdom to establish a framework for a new Saudi Defense Doctrine (SDD) to assess how it can best fulfill and sustain its enhanced responsibilities in the coming years. Having recently published such a study through the Defense and Intelligence Projects at Harvard's Kennedy School Belfer Center, I list the primary points of the SDD herein so as to foster a discussion that will no doubt be highly valuable in fine-tuning what should and can only be a long assessment process. The objective is to better understand and assess the kingdom's current and coming predicaments, its present capabilities and its future needs as it sets out to serve as a major stabilizing force working for peace and order in the Middle East and beyond.

The new SDD, as has been conceived, has seven main goals:

  1. Defend the homeland.
  2. Succeed in counterterrorism efforts.
  3. Bolster the defense of partner states.
  4. Prevail in power-projection missions.
  5. Deter the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
  6. Establish two separate commands for cyberspace and space.
  7. Strengthen interagency partnerships. 

The first point speaks for itself. Like any nation, Saudi Arabia must first be able to defend itself from external threats. Such threats can emerge in the form of attacks on sea lanes that prevent precious oil from reaching global markets, incursions via land borders (via Yemen or Iraq, for example) or attacks from the air. The kingdom is already in the process of substantially bolstering its defenses to meet these increasingly complex possibilities.

Counterterrorism was at the center of the Saudi defense system even before 9/11, though that dreadful al-Qaeda attack propelled the country, as did the terrorist attacks by the local al-Qaeda affiliate in Riyadh in May 2003, to greatly enhance its counterterrorism capabilities. This has not only meant security and rehabilitation efforts at home, but also massive collaborations with numerous other governments to help internationalize, and thus make more effective, the global war on terror. It can no doubt be said that today, Saudi Arabia has the most sophisticated and proven counter-terrorism program in the world. But, of course, this will have to continue to grow and develop as terrorist networks adapt.

With the main Western nations showing signs of slow disengagement from the fractious Middle East, Saudi Arabia finds itself in the position of needing to help its strategic allies bolster their defenses. Just as it did in Bahrain two years ago — sending in troops to help the Bahraini government protect critical government infrastructure after Iran-backed militants brought bloodshed and chaos to the nation — the kingdom must be ready to help other partner nations defend from both external invasion and internal insurrection. This will require both increased defense expenditures and enhanced cooperative efforts with other countries.

Part of maintaining order in a region is being able to project power. The SDD is based on the philosophical underpinnings of the German Schlieffen Plan of World War I and its theoretical scenario that allowed the German empire to fight a war on two opposite fronts simultaneously. Given the constant conflicts that plague the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia develops its military over the next five to 10 years, such capabilities must be at the center of force conceptualization.

For years, Saudi Arabia has articulated its official stance on WMDs through its signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as its continued promotion of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. However, the Saudis must remain realistic. Should Iran become a nuclear state, they must follow suit and gain the capacity to defend themselves. As much as one can hope it will not be needed, conceptualizations for such an unpleasant necessity must be part of Saudi future thinking.

The Saudi kingdom faces a complex, uncertain and ever-changing regional and global landscape. The slow decline of Western influence and power in the Arab world, the spread of WMDs, the rise of a completely new cyber-arena, sectarian divisions and extremism will continue to pose profound challenges to the regional and international order. The introduction of an SDD seeks to amalgamate Saudi Arabia's enormous political, financial and social resources and articulate its goals leading into the future so it can successfully face these challenges.

But the SDD is not a mere study in search of implementation. In fact, the Saudi government has already committed over $150 billion to principles identical to those expressed in the SDD. Of that sum, a large majority comes from military programs involving US, French and British companies, and that number is expected to increase to about $250 billion over the next decade. It is clear the Saudi government has financially committed to the enhancement of the kingdom's inevitable increased role and responsibilities on the international scene. A potential new SDD can serve as the framework by which the kingdom can most effectively channel this massive military build-up to maintain order and peace in a so-called post-Arab Spring Middle East.

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Found in: weapons, security cooperation, security, saudi arabia, regional politics, military aid, defense

Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

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