By Kamran Bokhari
Saudi Arabia is the weakest of the Middle East’s four major powers – Turkey, Israel and Iran being the other three – given its fragile economy and relative lack of military power projection capabilities. Nonetheless, the kingdom has had to assume the responsibility for Arab collective security in light of the shift in U.S. strategy for the region and the post-Arab Spring regional chaos. Unable to fulfill this role on its own, Riyadh has been trying to form a coalition of the willing. Such a strategy is unlikely to work given that most of those who have signed on don’t have much to offer, while those who matter, such as Turkey, have their own competing visions for regional security.
Creating an Appearance of Military Strength
Ten days ago, the military exercise codenamed Raad al-Shamal (Northern Thunder) kicked off in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have billed it as the largest ever war game in the Middle East, claiming that 150,000 troops from 19 countries (Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, Djibouti, Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan, Chad, Tunisia, Morocco, Comoros, Mauritius and the Maldives) are participating. The three-week drills are being held in the King Khalid Military City in Hafar al-Batin in the northeastern part of the country.
Commentators in the Saudi press have described the objective of Raad al-Shamal as a critical part of the kingdom’s strategy to defend itself and its Gulf allies against potential Iranian aggression. Indeed, the location of the military exercise in the oil-rich Eastern Province – some 45 miles south of Iraq (a country allied with Tehran) was chosen with the Shiite threat in mind. On Feb. 10, the kingdom’s main English language daily, Arab News, quoted military and strategic analyst Col. Ibrahim al-Marie as saying that the drill provides an opportunity to activate the proposed 34-nation “Islamic military alliance.” The coalition was announced by Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of reigning monarch King Salman, on Dec. 15. These exercises take place at a time when a Saudi-led coalition is engaged in a major military intervention in Yemen, where opposition forces led by the pro-Iranian Houthi movement took over large parts of the country in 2014.
In recent weeks, a number of reports pertaining to some rather unusual Saudi military activity have surfaced. On Feb. 6, the Saudis announced that they were prepared to deploy forces in Syria to fight as part of a coalition against the Islamic State. On the following day, the Saudi daily al-Watan called for the government to institute compulsory military service. On Feb. 14, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey confirmed that Riyadh stationed some of its warplanes at Turkey’s İncirlik air base. Separately, on Feb. 20, there was a report in the London-based Arabic daily Rai al-Youm that a Saudi task force had been stationed in the border areas of northeastern Jordan to participate in cross-border operations against both Hezbollah and Islamic State fighters based in Syria’s As-Suwayda province.
At first glance, these various developments would seem to suggest that the kingdom has taken a “quantum leap” – to quote the commander of the kingdom’s Northern Borders region, Maj. Gen. Fahd bin Abdullah al-Mutair – towards enhancing the perception of its military capabilities. However, upon closer inspection it rather quickly becomes apparent that these reports are in fact carefully planted stories in the media designed to counter perceptions that the kingdom cannot defend itself – much less cater to regional security. A key aspect of this public relations effort has been to highlight that Riyadh is simultaneously operating on multiple fronts, both as a leader of a coalition and a key component of an international effort. The kingdom’s military spokesman and top military adviser Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, in an interview on Feb. 9 with the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, emphasized that his country “does not operate alone; it operates within a military coalition in Yemen or Syria.”
Reliance on External Partners for Security
Partnering with other states is not a choice but a necessity for the Saudis. For the longest time, the Saudis relied on the United States as its security guarantor. In 1991, when Baathist Iraq annexed Kuwait, Riyadh allowed the U.S. to station as many as half a million troops on its soil. This is despite the fact that it created a major rift between the royal family and significant parts of the Salafist religious establishment. In fact, the decision opened up fissures within the ulema class – a group of religious scholars, which served as a catalyst for the creation of al-Qaida – that continue to grow.
The Saudis were prepared to absorb the domestic cost of aligning so closely with the Americans because they did not have any other means of defending themselves. In the 25 years since the first Gulf War, the Saudis have continued to rely on Washington. However, since 9/11, Saudi and American interests have increasingly diverged. The most significant jolt to the Saudis came when the U.S. moved to effect regime change in Iraq, which created a new Shiite-dominated state supported by Iran.
Iraq’s weakened position after the 1991 war did not pose much of a threat to the Saudis and their Gulf allies and it still served as a useful buffer against Iran. But its collapse as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003 significantly altered the balance of power, leaving the Saudis terribly vulnerable. The Saudis took comfort from the discord between the U.S. and Iran, which would contain Tehran. But by 2011, the Americans fully withdrew from Iraq and the Arab world plunged into chaos following popular uprisings – many of which quickly transformed into armed insurrections.
The subsequent rise of the Islamic State and the U.S. move to reach a détente with Iran as part of the American effort to re-establish a balance of power in the region meant that the Saudi kingdom had to alter its historical role as a passive player in regional security matters. In 2011, Saudi Arabia made its first move in Bahrain when, along with its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, it sent forces to quell a popular uprising led by the country’s Shiite majority seeking to topple the monarchy controlled by the Sunni minority. The Saudis succeeded in crushing the uprising – not a significant feat given the small size of the island nation and the fact that the Saudi military was really engaging in a law enforcement operation.
Inadequate Military Capabilities
Being able to stabilize Bahrain boosted the Saudis’ confidence in their ability to act militarily beyond their borders – even if on a limited scale. However, the magnitude and complexity of the growing anarchy throughout the region quickly revealed that Bahrain was an exception. Most Saudi efforts to exert influence in the region since then have involved its two traditional tools: financial muscle and/or the use of Salafist-jihadist militias. In Egypt, for example, the Saudis have supported the military regime with billions of dollars in cash, while in Syria the Saudis have resorted to using a mix of the two tools.
These proved to be not only insufficient but also worsened the problem. The Arab world has become more susceptible to Iranian expansionism and is now home to the Islamic State, which is a far greater challenge to the Saudis than Tehran. Syria and Iraq are the most significant battlespace where the Saudis are trying to deal with both threats simultaneously. While Riyadh was focused on its northern flank and still avoided having to get involved militarily, the situation in its backyard deteriorated sharply.
In 2012, the Saudi attempt to negotiate an exit for its erstwhile ally in Yemen, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and replace him with his vice president pushed the kingdom’s southern neighbor deeper into conflict. The country’s military fractured and pro-Saleh forces joined hands with the country’s single-largest political force, the Houthi movement known as Ansar Allah, which is dominated by the Shia Zaydi sect and allied with Iran. By 2014, the Houthi-led opposition forces had taken over much of the inhabitable parts of the country. The Saudis tried to deal with the matter indirectly because they knew well that Yemen – with its various internal fault lines – was going to prove extremely different than Bahrain.
The Saudis also remembered their brief 2009 border encounter with the Houthis on their core turf in northwestern Yemen, which was costly in terms of casualties. However, by March 2015, the situation deteriorated to a point where the Saudis had no choice but to lead their first major military intervention to restore the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Yet, the Saudis were unable to get the coalition they had sought because Turkey politely declined, Egypt did not send in ground forces and Pakistan, in a rather surprising move, rejected the Saudi request. As a result, the Saudi-led coalition of the willing consisting of mostly small Arab countries has been fighting alongside pro-Saudi Yemeni troops and irregulars.
In almost a year since the operation began, Saudi-led forces have retaken the port city of Aden and some surrounding areas, however, the general state of the war is that it has become a quagmire for the Saudis. A key reason for this is that the capital remains in opposition hands and its fighters continue to resist in many parts of the west and south. Furthermore, the Houthis have been directly attacking areas in the Saudi provinces of Jizan and Najran that straddle the border with Yemen. Furthermore, the sectarian war in Yemen has created more space for both al-Qaida and the Islamic State to expand.
Between the worsening situation on its southern frontier and its unsuccessful efforts to convince other Arab and Muslim countries to offer troops, the Saudis are in no position to send anything besides token forces to Syria. The threats that the Saudis face from the Levant as well as from within the Arabian Peninsula come at a time when low oil prices have forced the kingdom to burn through 15 percent of its cash reserves in just the last year. This deteriorating financial situation means the Saudis will likely be facing domestic problems, which will further constrain their ability to act regionally.
The Saudis are trying to mask a purely defensive national security strategy as one that seeks to project power regionally. Hence, they continue their efforts towards forming the Islamic military alliance even though it has not produced results thus far.
Lack of Support from Arab Countries
The Raad al-Shamal military exercise and the Saudis’ recent efforts to align closer with Turkey on Syria – especially in the wake of Ankara’s challenges with the Kurds – are key components of this strategy. The Saudis hope that the drill can be a key stepping stone towards the creation of the Islamic military alliance they seek. While Arab and Muslim countries are willing to participate in military exercises, they are less interested in being part of a permanent formal military coalition.
Egypt’s military is heavily preoccupied on the home front, given the country’s fragile political economy, domestic jihadist threats and the threat from neighboring Libya. Therefore, the Saudis are left to rely on non-Arab forces – primarily Pakistan and Turkey. Like the Egyptians, the Pakistanis don’t have the troops to spare, given that Islamabad is busy fighting its own domestic jihadists and has to deal with the deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan. Even if the Pakistanis had the bandwidth to participate in the Saudi-led coalition, they would still be extremely wary of the sectarian motivations behind the coalition project. The Pakistanis are thus finding excuses to keep their distance, which is why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, said on Feb. 18 that his country was still awaiting details from the Saudis on the nature of the alliance.
In the end, if there is one country that can help the Saudis protect themselves from Iran and the Islamic State, it is Turkey. But Turkey is not willing to subordinate itself to a Saudi-led military alliance. Ankara sees itself as the leader of the region and the wider Sunni Islamic world and thus is in competition with Riyadh. Given that they have to deal with the Iranians on many fronts, the Turks are all the more cautious about the Saudi sectarian agenda.
Furthermore, the Turks have their own priorities, which include Syria and Iraq, and are also currently dealing with the Kurds. Saudi Arabia’s concerns are secondary, if not tertiary. On Feb. 22, the Turkish foreign minister ruled out a joint Turkish-Saudi ground operation in Syria. The Turks know well that the Saudis simply want Bashar al-Assad gone in order to weaken Iran and Ankara will have to face the long-term task of dealing with the Syrian conflict.
Given its own military weakness, Saudi Arabia will have to continue to rely on others to achieve its goal of stabilizing the region. However, the Saudis have not received the support they need from fellow Arab and Muslim countries. The Turks are willing to work with the Saudis but only in a regional security arrangement where Ankara plays the lead role. The Saudis will still get their coalition but will have to settle for being a junior partner. As the Saudi kingdom weakens over time, its dependency on Turkey will increase substantially. In essence, Saudi Arabia will cease to be a major regional player.