Saudi Arabia and military expenditures: When will the House of Saud feel safe?
By Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 5, 2006, 00:47

�Passing over, for the present, all the evils and mischiefs which monarchy has occasioned in the world, nothing can more effectually prove its usefulness in a state of civil government than making it hereditary. Would we make any office hereditary that required wisdom and abilities to fill it? And where wisdom and abilities are not necessary, such an office, whatever it may be, is superfluous or insignificant. Hereditary succession is a burlesque upon monarchy. It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot may fill. It requires some talent to be a common mechanic; but, to be a king, requires only the animal figure of man -- a sort of breathing automaton." [1]

These are the words of Thomas Paine written in 1791. His logic and reasoning is as sound and pertinent now as it was then. But if Thomas Paine were alive and expressed similar sentiments in Saudi Arabia today, he would face imprisonment and torture. The very idea of republicanism, which the founding fathers of The United States so cherished, is seen as subversive in Saudi Arabia and is actively discouraged by the government.

Saudi Arabia is a special country. It is the place of two of the Muslims� holiest sites. It is a major oil producer. It is the only country in the world that is named after its founder: Ibn Saud. It is one of a few countries in the world that is run as a family business. It also had the world�s highest military expenditure per capita. In the period 1990 to 2004, Saudi Arabia has spent more on its military than Iran, Pakistan, or even India with a population of over 1 billion people. Yet, they (Saudis and friends) still feel that Saudi Arabia needs more military hardware.

On May 18, the general in charge of U.S. arms sales told Reuters that the United States was talking to Iran�s neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), about ways to bolster their defences.

It is interesting to note that although the United States has large military bases in the Persian Gulf, none of these countries ever feel secure. The Persian Gulf countries have one of the highest military expenditures in the world.

From 1990 to 2004, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 21.4 million spent a whopping $ 268.6 billion dollars on arms. That is more than $12 million dollars for every man, woman, and child in Saudi Arabia. One would have thought that with that kind of expenditure the Saudis would have felt safe by now. But apparently they don�t, or at least this is the view of the U.S. and the U.K., two major arm suppliers to these countries.

But Saudi Arabia is not alone in this. Take the tiny country of United Arab Emirates. This country with a population of 2.6 million souls spent $38.6 billion dollars for defence between 1990 and 2004. [2]

Even Kuwait with a population of 1.1 million people, in the same period spent $73.1 billion on arms. When Iraqis crossed the border on August 2, 1990, the Kuwaiti generals used their mobile phones to gather all the top ranking military officers in a convoy and drove to Saudi Arabia. The only soldiers who actually put up some resistance were the military students who had not been warned about the situation. The military cadets, however, did put up heroic resistance at their military academy. What happened to all that money that had been spent on shiny military hardware until 1990 is anyone�s guess. What is known is that no one was there to use them.

These three countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait) combined, have spent over $380 billion in 14 years. And yet they still feel insecure. Compare this with the Iranian military expenditure of $49.5 billion for the same period. Even India with a population of over 1 billion people spent only $156 billion on armaments in the same period. This in spite of the frictions that exist between India and its two neighbours: China and Pakistan.

The Saudis already own more than 1,015 Tanks including 315 high quality M1A2s, over 5,000 APCs/AFVs, 780 artillery pieces, over 2,000 anti-tank missile launchers, over 340 high quality combat aircrafts including F15S/C/Ds and Tornados, with 48 Typhoons (Eurofighter) to be delivered in 2008. On top of that, they own over 228 helicopters, 160 training and liaison aircrafts and 51 transport aircraft. The Saudi navy operates over 27 major combat vessels, including missile frigates and missile corvettes. [3]

Most of these weapons are offensive. On May 22, DebkaFile reported that the U.S. is considering arming Israel and Saudi Arabia with its largest bunker busting bombs.

�The intention is to arm US allies with a deterrent against Iran by sharing with them the means for striking the Islamic Republic�s underground nuclear installations.

"This Massive Ordnance Penetrator -- MOP -- known as BIG-BLU - weighs in at 13,600 kilos and can destroy 25 percent of its targets in bunkers buried beneath 60 meters of reinforced concrete, a depth greater than any other bomb of its type." [4]

Do the Americans seriously think that Saudi Arabia will ever use these bombs? The answer is no. These possibly will end-up in storage with other Saudi offensive weapons.

The Saudis already have problems absorbing the huge military hardware that they purchased in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet the purchasing goes on without interruption. An early glimpse into the absorption problems was provided in 1984 by Said K. Aburish (author of several authoritative books on the Middle East). In his excellent book, �The House of Saud,� he pointed out the problems that were facing the Saudis in 1990s.

He wrote, �In the wake of the Gulf War, the hardware being purchased for the Saudi armed forces will continue to outstrip their ability to use it. Saudi Arabia has embarked on an armaments shopping spree which includes contracts to buy American Patriot Missiles; F15s; laser bombs; a Hughes Aircraft aerial-defence system; Canadian Halifax frigates, French Helec torpedo boats and British aircraft; and helicopters and boats from British Aerospace, Westland Helicopters and Vospers Thorneycroft.� [5]

The problems apparently continued to persist into 2002, For Anthony H. Cordesman and Arleigh A. Burke of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported the same problems as Aburish did in 1994. In their report on Saudi security problems (2002), they stated the following:

�There should never be another set of massive arms package deals with the US or Europe of the kind that took place during the Gulf War or a purchase like Al Yamama. Barring a future major war, purchases should be made and justified on a case-by-case basis, off budget and oil barter deals should be illegal, and all offset deals subject to annual public reporting with an independent accountant and auditor. Saudi Arabia must also take every possible step to eliminate the waste of funds on:

  • "Unique equipment types and one-of-a-kind modifications.

  • �'Glitter factor' weapons; 'developmental' equipment and technology.

  • "Arms buys made from Europe for political purposes where there is no credible prospect that the seller country can project major land and air forces.

  • "Non-interoperable weapons and systems.

  • "Submarines and ASW systems.

  • "Major surface warfare ships.

  • "Major equipment for divided or 'dual' forces.

  • "New types of equipment that increase the maintenance, sustainability, and training problem, or layer new types over old.

  • "New types of equipment which strain the financial and manpower resources of Saudi Arabia, and overload military units that are already experiencing absorption and conversion problems in using the equipment they possess or have on order.� [6]

But apparently no amount of analyses and reports by individuals and organisations make any impression on the Saudi government, for the shopping spree continues unabated.

In December 2005, The Guardian reported the signing of a multi-billion dollar sale contract for the above mentioned Typhoons or Eurofighters. The interesting thing about the sale was the reference to global terrorism.

The MoD said: "The understanding document is intended to establish a greater partnership in modernising the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces and developing close service-to-service contacts especially through joint training and exercises. The partnership also recognises the key objectives shared by the two governments with regard to national security and actions to combat global terrorism." [7]

It is very interesting to find out how Saudi Arabia is going to use these fighters in its war against global terrorism. But even if this sale does not help the war on terror, at least it provided jobs for the 9,000 UK based BAE employees and pushed BAE�s share price up by 6 percent.

But what is it that compels Saudis to spend so much money and resources on arms? What wars are they preparing for and whom are they going to defend themselves against?

The Threat Within

The truth is that the only threat to Saudi Arabia comes from within. The recent threats by al Qaeda would not have been so dangerous if large segments of the population were not so sympathetic to it. Saudi volunteers and money is seen behind recent attacks, from the US to Iraq to North Africa. But the threat does not come only from the Jihadists. There have been other threatening sources within the general population as well.

There have been several coup attempts in Saudi Arabia, and not all of them from the Muslim extremists. There have been actions against the House of Saud by various Saudi groups in 1969, 1972, and 1979.

For example since the Air Force rebellion of 1969, pilots are recruited primarily from the �dependable� families and the extended royal house (over 8,000 princes). Saudi princes occupy all top military and political positions. Until the late 1980s, Pakistan was providing a protection force of 11,000 to 15,000 troops to the Saudi government.[8] After the relocation of US troops from Saudi Arabia to Qatar and other places, the Saudis are looking to Pakistan again for troops. According to the Financial Times [9], Pakistan is to send fresh troops to the kingdom for security duties and training of Saudi military troops. There are also plans for purchasing Pakistani-assembled tanks by the Saudis.

The interesting question here is why the Saudi government needs foreign troops on its soil? Whom are the Pakistani troops going to protect and from what?

For years now, many international human right organisations have been reporting abuses in Saudi Arabia, without anything happening. In 2000, Amnesty International reported the following: [10]

  • Saudi Arabia systematically violates international human rights standards even after agreeing to be bound by them. For example, in September 1997 Saudi Arabia acceded to the Convention against Torture. Yet, torture is widespread in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system.

  • In Saudi Arabia, trials are held in secrecy. Detained prisoners are often not told which offences they are alleged to have committed, and their relatives, colleagues or managers are often left in the dark about the charges, the trial or its outcome.

  • Criminal trials do not comply with international fair trial standards, and judicial proceedings generally -- which include financial and other administrative cases which affect businesses -- do not take place in a free and fair atmosphere. This affects not only Saudi Arabian nationals, but also foreign businesses which are active in Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia does not meet some of the standards of governance identified by international institutions because of its failure to establish an independent judicial system.

  • Prisoners are routinely denied access to lawyers. The Saudi criminal justice system does not allow consultation with a lawyer as a matter of a prisoner's right at any stage. This denies the prisoner's right to a fair trial.

  • Detained employees can be, and often are, subjected to a wide variety of abuses, including: prolonged solitary confinement, torture, flogging, amputation and the death penalty. These abuses are of direct concern to businesses operating in Saudi Arabia because their employees at all levels can be affected.

  • Migrant workers, recruited from other countries by businesses operating in Saudi Arabia, are particularly vulnerable, with their embassies unable to provide adequate support.

  • Saudi Arabia does not allow free association for employees, both for foreign and local businesses, although it has signed some core conventions of the International Labour Organization. In such an environment, companies have an important responsibility.

Every year the same charges are levelled against Saudi Arabia and every year new arm sales are made. In 2005, Human Rights Watch repeated the same charges against the government of Saudi Arabia and pleaded with Saudis to do something about these violations.

�Human rights violations are pervasive in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy. Despite international and domestic pressure to implement reforms, improvements have been halting and inadequate. King Abdullah�s succession to the throne after King Fahd�s death in August inspired some hope among Saudi citizens for future reform. King Abdullah quickly pardoned three prominent reformers who had earlier been sentenced to long prison terms for voicing criticism of the government, and announced a new labor law promising increased rights for women and migrant workers, but overall human rights conditions in the kingdom remain poor.

"Saudi law does not protect many basic rights. The government does not allow political parties, and places strict limits on freedom of expression. Arbitrary detention, mistreatment and torture of detainees, restrictions on freedom of movement, and lack of official accountability remain serious concerns. The kingdom carried out some seventy-three executions as of late September 2005, more than double the thirty-two executions in the whole of 2004. Saudi women continue to face serious obstacles to their participation in the economy, politics, media, and society. Many foreign workers face exploitative working conditions; migrant women working as domestics often are subjected to round-the-clock confinement by their employers, making them vulnerable to sexual abuse and other mistreatment. The government continued to harass independent Saudi Arabian human rights defenders and stifle their efforts to establish independent rights monitoring groups." [11]


But why don�t we see any campaign against Saudi Arabia? Why don�t we hear presidents and prime ministers condemning these atrocities? Why don�t we see articles urging a regime change in Saudi Arabia? How come it is okay to have thousands of people killed to remove a dictator in Iraq, yet it is not okay to even publicly call for change in the system of government in Saudi Arabia?

The answer is provided by Mr. Aburish, �The House of Saud is willing to provide the world with cheap oil and political support in their problems with the Arabs and Muslims in return for elimination of all criticism. It goes further and uses the awarding of huge defence contracts for the same purpose. In reality, the twin policy of using oil and awarding defence contracts is no more than blackmail; they protect the Western economies from high oil prices and buy arms in return for silence� [12]

How is it possible to have an absolute monarchy in 2006? Especially in the age of the Internet and satellite TV? The answer is terror of course. Only absolute terror can maintain an absolute monarchy. And we in the West, while shouting about human rights in Myanmar, Sudan, and other places, keep silent about Saudi Arabia.

However, history shows that no amount of oppression is going to stop the inevitable from happening. It happened in Iran, it is happening in Nepal, and if Saudis are not careful, it can happen in Saudi Arabia.

Just look at the statistics. Nearly 40 percent of the population (2005) is under the age of 14. The median age of the Saudi population is 21. Imagine a country with such a large teenage population, strict religious and social codes and no democracy. These people will demand participation in the political process. If the government represses them (as it is doing now); they become easy recruits for extremists.

What we should be aware of is the fact that people see the cause of their plight in the support that the West provides the regime. If they overthrow the government, in all likelihood, the new government will be extremely anti-Western. To avoid this it is advisable to begin seriously pressuring the Saudi government to reform.


1. Paine, Thomas, �Rights of Man," Great Britain

2. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), �SIPRI data on military expenditure

3. Jafee Center for Strategic Studies, �Saudi Arabia

4. DebkaFile, �DEBKAfile reports: Bush is expected to offer the mighty BIG-BLU bunker buster bomb to Israel and Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia," 22 May 2006

5. Aburish Said K., � The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of THE HOUSE OF SAUD," Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 38 Soho Square, London W1v 5DF, UK, 1994. Page 187

6. Cordesman Anthoney H. and Burke Arleigh A., �Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century: The Military and Internal Security Dimension: Chapter Eleven: Summary and Conclusions," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1800 K Street N.W., Washington, DC 2006, USA.

7. Guardian Unlimited, �Eurofighter sale to Saudi Arabia agreed," December 21, 2005

8. The United States Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, �Saudi Arabia," 1992

9. Financial Times, �Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in security tie-up," 16 April 2006

10. Amnesty International, �Saudi Arabia: Open for Business� , AI Index: MDE 23/082/2000

11. Human Rights Watch, �Human Rights Overview: Saudi Arabia," 2005

12. Aburish Said K., � The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of THE HOUSE OF SAUD," Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 38 Soho Square, London W1v 5DF, UK, 1994. Page 76

Copyright � 2006 Abbas Bakhtiar. All rights reserved.

Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He is a consultant and a contributing writer for many online journals. He's a former associate professor of Nordland University, Norway.

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