Saudi Arabia's Defense Doctrine Is Missing Something: Defense

Saudi security forces on parade. Wikimedia Commons/Omar Chatriwala/Al Jazeera English

Riyadh’s new approach to war is full of bad assumptions.

Until the end of the 2010s, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was more known as an oil superpower than as a military actor seeking regional dominance. Often exerting enormous influence over global oil supply and pricing, the kingdom was also known for the pursuit of a low-profile foreign policy, characterized by restraint and operating mostly in tandem with the United States, as in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation (1979–88), providing financial assistance to the anti-communist UNITA in the Angolan Civil War in the 1980s and even backing the faraway Contras in Nicaragua in the same decade. That is no more. The Saudis have in recent years dominated global news headlines by assuming high-profile diplomatic and military roles.

The air assault on Yemen in March 2015 to stamp out the Houthi rebels who took over Sanaa after ousting Saudi-backed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the March 2011 military incursions into Bahrain to trample the pro-democracy forces, the formation of a thirty-four-nation Islamic military alliance in December 2015, and proxy involvements in the Syrian Civil War are but a few examples of Saudi Arabia’s muscular foreign policy approach to deal with threats and enemies, perceived or real. There is a clear departure from the traditional policy of restraints to a hard approach to stand up to the overt or covert hostile groups and states.

What is militarily guiding Saudi Arabia’s hard approach to threats and enemies is a defense doctrine developed and executed in the last two to three years. Dubbed the new Saudi Defense Doctrine (SDD), it was first articulated, unofficially though, by a Saudi defense analyst back in 2014 under the title “A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine.” Prince Sultan bin Khaled al-Faisal, a former commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, presented the fundamentals of the doctrine in early October 2015, in an address he delivered in Washington, DC. The prince identified a series of defense objectives and said: “The primary aim of the new defense policy is to defend the homeland, protect Saudi citizens, secure national interests, bolster defense of partner states and strengthen [Saudi] interagency partnerships.” The same objectives are also spelled out, more elaborately, in the aforementioned report, “A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine.”

What the SDD Aims For

A quick look at the Saudi defense doctrine reveals a number of important points. The doctrine is no doubt a response to unconventional threats posed by powerful nonstate groups (Al Qaeda, ISIS’s “caliphate” or Hezbollah); more importantly, it is the Saudi answer to pent-up frustrations created by the Obama administration’s signing of a nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015. The U.S.–Iran nuclear deal was deeply unsettling for the Saudis, as it was for the Israelis, who perceive a nuclear-armed Iran as circumventing their foreign and defense policies in the Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel, America’s traditional allies, interpreted the deal as a major U.S. concession to facilitate the rise of Iran as a hegemonic power in the Middle East. The Saudi rulers were especially nervous that non-Arab, Persian-speaking Iranians, once they would be free to pursue the nuclear option (after fifteen years the deal largely loosens restrictions), would force the Arab states to seek Tehran’s prior approval for all regional policy issues or that actions on every regional policy issue must pass through Tehran— a scenario that must be stopped. Dealing with political instability and violence emerging from the  Arab Spring  is another major objective of the doctrine. So is the elimination or prevention of regional terrorism under one disguise or another.

Implicit in the Saudi doctrine is the idea that with U.S. influence waning in the Middle East, and the absence of a countervailing power to Iran (as was Iraq under Saddam Hussein), Saudi Arabia remains the only financially and militarily capable state to lead the Arab countries, fight back the forces of instability, defend its strategic partners in the Gulf and beyond, and play the role of “ultimate regional defender.” The SDD, accordingly, envisions ambitious defense spending in the next decade or so to make Saudi Arabia a regional military hegemon. Air force, naval fleet and combat-ready ground forces are expected to double, at the massive cost of $250 billion over the next decade. Eventually, Saudi Arabia would have the force capability to fight a two-front war simultaneously—anti-Saudi forces on the insecure southern borders with Yemen, and the volatile northern borders with Iraq and Jordan where ISIS and Al Qaeda forces roam around freely as Iran is makes strategic inroads.

The SDD Faces Its Maiden Test