Saudia Arabia has plenty of money why isn't it stronger militarily?

I was just wondering why the Saudis, with all their billions in oil income, haven’t assembled a military machine at least as powerful as Israels? What’s holding them back from being a military superpower in the Middle East?

Well, anytime you assemble an effective military force in an Arab nation, it has a nasty tendency to seize control and start shooting former members of the government.

Further, the tendency in Arab nations is to give military rank to men with family connections, not necessarily competence and leadership abilities. The grunts would have to be conscripted and are routinely treated with contempt, which doesn’t help to build effective fighting forces.

Besides, if anyone threatens to invade Saudi Arabia (Israel has never been in the position to wage a war of conquest), they can always count on the Americans to come to their aid, as they did in 1991 to put Saddam back in his place.

Why should they pay to build a military, when it’s cheaper for them to let us do it, since they know we’ll be there in no time if anything happens?

It is better for America to have the Saud family dependant on us, than it would be to have a large, independant, Saudi army.

FWIW, Saudi Arabia does have a pretty decent airforce (on paper, at least), being that it is the most ‘Britishized’ branch of the Saudi armed forces. Their army seems to be more in line with the rest of the arab armies: Long on glitzy equipment, short on training and organization.

The Saudis have great equipment, just as good as Israel’s. Just not as much of it and poor training.

One problem with almost all totalitarian states and the military is that it is centrally controlled. Israel, the US, Britain, and other democracies have faith in their soldiers’ intelligence and initiative and a lot of power and decision-making in the heat of battle belongs to the NCOs and lower officers. In totalitarian countries, the higher officers and dictators make all the decisions, they don’t trust anyone else.

Not to mention the fact that soldier fighting for dictatorships have a nasty habit of fleeing. WHy would you die for a dictator?

I believe your premise is incorrect. The Saudi’s HAD lots of money. Royalty aside, the wealth of the average citizen has declined with the relative low price of crude oil. Unemployment is at 30%

We tend to think $1.80 for gas is a high price but adjusted for inflation, gas is still pretty cheap. The worst thing that could happen to Saudi Arabia is an emerging Iraq that can add it’s oil to the World market.

While this has a bit of truth to it in one sense ( the U.S. is ultimately the final deterrent for SA ), it is also a bit unfair. Nobody spends more on their military in the Middle East than Saudi Arabia. Currently their annual budget is in the $18-20 billion range and pretty much has hovered around that level since the 1970’s. That’s something like four times what Iran spent on their far larger military last year.

The issues, most of them noted already, are several-fold:

  1. Manpower problems - despite the healthy population, Saudi Arabia has a hard time mobilizing them effectively due to internal constraints. For example they will not recruit from suspect regions ( the Hijaz, basically Eastern Arabia ) or traditional tribal rivals, thus greatly shrinking the potential military pool. For that matter there is a lot of internal compeitition for the kind of educated people needed for technical specialists of various sorts.

  2. The ground forces split their manpower bewteen two rival branches - the Regular Army ( w/all the heavy armor ) and the National Guard ( more lightly armed, but probably a little better trained, oddly enough, probably in part because it is easier to train light or light mechanized infantry ). These forces are almost equivalent in size, run by rival branches of the Saudi royal family ( the Sudairi and Jilwa factions, respectively ) and are highly jealous of their respective perogatives. While adding an extra layer of internal anti-coup balance to the regime, it compounds the manpower difficulties and causes some wastage of resources.

  3. Nepotism, corruption, internal infighting and a tendency to reward loyalty, familial connections and seniority over competence when it comes to promotions. Unlike Israel this is still a quasi-feudal society in a number of respects.

  4. Overemphasis on large-scale infrastructure ( elaborate military complexes ) and shiny new equipment to the detriment of training and small-scale logistics. The former are over-funded, the latter still underfunded.

  5. Related to the above, some bizarre past purchase priorities. For example going with a “dual MBT” system, with French AMX-30’s alongside American M-60’s ( and British Scorpion light tanks thrown in to boot ). Instant logistic nightmare.

All that said, the Saudi military doesn’t exactly suck. As noted it is pretty well-equipped for a third-world force and has had decades of western training. It just is undersized and not nearly as good as it should be for the money it spends.

  • Tamerlane


Hijaz= Western Arabia ( roughly )

  • Tamerlane

“Related to the above, some bizarre past purchase priorities”
Don’t the Saudis use their arms purchases partly as diplomatic levers over other countries? For instance I remember reading somewhere that they were switching their procurement more towards Europe because of their unhappiness over US policy.

You got it right with the “eastern province” thing anyway. Most of the Shia live there and none of the royals wants to give them guns.



Isn’t Hijaz the western province encompassing Mecca and Medina. For that reason alone, I’d have thought it was almost completely Sunni.

Sorry I wasn’t clear there. I meant that Tamarlane had it right about the armed forces not recruiting in the Eastern province. The Hijaz is indeed the Western part of the country and Mecca and Medina are Sunni.



Well, they traditionally don’t recruit Shi’a in the east ( actually interestingly enough, I’ve read that just recently a very few Shi’a have been admitted to the National Guard as part of a general broadening of recruitment beyond the traditional tribal base, I assume out of necessity since the NG, like the SA military generally, has undergone an expansion since 1991 ). However the bulk of the military was, and largely still is, recruited from loyal sub-populations in the Najd and al-Hasa in eastern SA.

  • Tamerlane

I hadn’t heard about them allowing any Shia at all in the military, that is surprising. I wonder if it will turn out like ARAMCO where there are quite a few Shia employees but no Shia managers.



I’m surprised the Saudis would actively exclude Shia recruits. Have the Shia felt especially disenfranchised by this? Do they just not care and prefer to be left alone having nothing to do with the military? Also, are they similarly excluded from the civil services?

This is true, but the operational cost of playing those sort of games ( however useful politically ) is high.

Almost certainly - I wouldn’t expect to see any Shi’a senior officers for a long, long time, if ever. In fact I doubt that the numbers of Shi’a recruited are going to be all that substantial, anyway. As a smallish minority and a suspect one, I imagine this is as much tokenism as anything.

Also I don’t know if the regular military is recruiting Shi’a, as opposed to the NG. The two are pretty separate in how they do things and just because the NG branch of the family is branching out a bit, doesn’t mean the RA branch will as well. But let me check my source on that.

  • Tamerlane

I don’t believe it is so much a matter of actively excluding them as simply making it clear that they would stay at the “cannon fodder” level. No career advancement at all. I haven’t heard of any official rules excluding Shia but the local Suni don’t trust them. There is a suspicion that any Shia recruits might be getting their orders from Tehran rather than their local commander.

The few Shia I know in Dhahran and Dammam do feel excluded. and the Bahrainis feel that they are oppressed during the Haj.

Conversely, the (Suni) fundamentalists that I know feel that going to a predominantly Shia town like Qatif would be taking their lives in their hands. I doubt that a Suni would actually be hurt in Qatif but they do believe it.
As far as civil-service types, there must be a few in the Eastern province but I certainly haven’t met or heard of any.



Here’s a good source for a lot of this stuff:

  • Tamerlane

Thanks, that was a good reference.
On CyberPundit’s note about the Saudis using military purchases as political levers. I’m sure it happens but I think that politics is secondary to which prince is sponsoring a given company.



The following is based on anecdotes relayed to me by a Major in the US Army who had spent time during several training exercises with the Saudis. An instructor who spent enough time over in the Middle East to earn her Juris Doctorate in Islamic Law (I believe from a school in Cairo or Riyadh) also worked closely with their military, spoke during the same course, and backed up the gist of the stories that the Major told, relaying similar stories and assuring us that yes, Saudi military personnel really will ignore what we think of as “common sense” in favor of adhering to cultural norms.

The two biggest problems with armies in Saudi Arabia (and Egypt, and other heavily-Muslim countries) are (1) a cultural belief in divine providence and (2) a cultural prohibition against embarrassing/insulting yourself or your “betters” in academic environments.

Imagine Captain Al-Saud (probably in his late 20s or early 30s) is in charge of the motor pool for an infantry unit. He takes delivery of twenty Humvees, and the US military liaison (possibly an 18 year old kid from Skokie, almost certainly clean-shaven) shows up to teach them all how to maintain their vehicles. Unless he outranks Captain Al-Saud, is older, wears a beard, and has more sons, it would be quite insulting for him to waltz in there and embarrass them all by… teaching. By teaching, you are implying that the person you are teaching didn’t already know what you’re saying. If you ask “are there any questions?” at the end of a briefing (standard US Army procedure!) you will get no takers, because to ask a question not only implies that you did not know it, but you didn’t learn what was just taught to you. That insults not only you (for being a bad student) but also the teacher by implying he didn’t do a good enough job of relaying the facts. Coupled with the lack of trust in the typical majority-Muslim army’s chain of command (captains and majors making decisions that would be handled by a staff sergeant in the US), vehicle and weapon systems maintenance knowledge is simply never going to be up to our standards.

As for divine providence, some of the most common complaints in a Saudi motor pool are likely to be “it just stopped working.” This is because, trusting to divine providence, preventive maintenance is almost never performed. On the most basic level, fuel and oil gauges are rarely checked. If Allah wishes the driver to make it to the next stop, then there will be enough gas in the tank when he picks it up. “Allah will provide gas & oil, or someone who knows how to pump gas and change the oil” is the basic mindset (this extreme may have been hyperbole on the part of the major–I myself have trouble believing that in an entire unit, nobody would think to fill up the gas tanks).

Couple infrequent maintenance with poor maintenance skills and training, and any technology beyond basic internal combustion or cartridge-loaded firearms is going to fall apart very quickly. Often the more expensive hardware will fall apart first! After one or two experiences with this, you can bet the acquisitions guys over there learn to buy stuff that basically takes care of itself.

So, in a roundabout way, the answer to “why doesn’t Saudi Arabia have a better military despite their budget?” is:

It is the will of Allah.