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Saudi Military Spending Fails Test

Country's inability to defend itself despite well-equipped forces becomes an issue of concern

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 1990



DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA

NEARLY every evening, Saudi television viewers are treated to splendid footage of their expensive, high-tech Army at work. United States-made F-16 fighter jets swoop by in tight formation. Ground-based missiles pluck mock enemy planes out of the sky. Smartly dressed troops parade in front of an admiring King Fahd and his royal entourage. Such scenes have been reassuring for the many years Saudi Arabia has been at peace with its Gulf neighbors. But now that the kingdom has been forced to appeal for massive outside reinforcements to deter an Iraqi invasion, many Saudis are asking, in effect, ``Where's the beef?''

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``Where's the fantastic army that so many billions were spent to create?'' asks an exasperated Saudi, voicing a concern heard increasingly around the kingdom in the aftermath of Iraq's conquest of Kuwait.

``We've spent billions building up our military and we still have to ask for outside help,'' complains another Saudi, a businessman from Jiddah. ``It makes you wonder why we are spending all this money if there's no utility in it?''

Fair questions, many military experts respond.

Huge military budget

Each year Saudi Arabia allocates nearly half of its budget to defense. As a percentage of gross national product, the kingdom spends almost the same as Israel, the region's strongest military power.

Yet, despite such impressive outlays, Saudi Arabia's small volunteer Army of 65,000 has proved no match for the nation that has long been one of the kingdom's most obvious potential adversaries, Iraq.

One explanation offered by Saudi officials is that the kingdom has placed its priority on domestic development rather than the kind of headlong quest for regional military supremacy pursued by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Within the limits imposed by these priorities, Saudi officials say, their objective has been to create a small, efficient fighting force based on the deterrent power of a strong air force and sophisticated antimissile systems.

With such a vast area to defend (Saudi Arabia is as big as the US east of the Mississippi) and with so little manpower to defend it (the kingdom has population of 13 million), these officials add, there is no way massive Iraqi-style ground forces and tanks can be effectively utilized.

The main reason Saudi Arabia was caught short by the Iraqi invasion may have more to do with politics than military strategy, say many independent analysts. Having learned from the experience of countries like Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq, where military coups have toppled monarchies, Saudi rulers have simply chosen not to take the risk of creating a large standing army.

``They see that a large army could do more to threaten internal security than to defend the kingdom,'' observes a Western diplomat in Saudi Arabia.

``A huge build-up would create its own values, its own language, it's own power center,'' adds a private Saudi defense analyst. ``Once you start, you won't be able to control the army.''

To minimize such risks, Saudi rulers have organized the country's 35,000-man National Guard, used for internal security, on a tribal basis, with the command structure firmly in the hands of the Saudi princes.

Military analysts point to two other factors that have consigned the Saudi Army to a minor role during the present crisis.

One is that even though the US has granted $50 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia since the 1950s, only $15 billion has actually been used for the purchase of weapons. The balance has been devoted to creating an elaborate infrastructure - the roads and runways, hangers and training that have been required to make the weapons operational.

``It's not surprising they've spent so much and have so little to show for it,'' says the Western diplomat.

More troubling are alleged inefficencies that have troubled Saudi military procurement. Under the Saudi system, contracts are usually awarded on the basis of membership in the royal family rather than through the normal process of competitive bidding. One result is that contracts for military purchases have been greatly overpriced, according to conversations with a numerous informed Saudis.

``The discrepancy between what we've paid for and what we've got - it just doesn't add up,'' says a Saudi source who, like many of his countrymen, says waste and official corruption have pervaded the kingdom's military purchases.

``For every deal, they could have bought twice as much equipment,'' adds a Western source in Riyadh requesting anonymity.

Rethinking strategy

Saudi officials are said to have believed that even with a slim, high-tech force, the kingdom would have been able to respond to any military threat. The credibility of that notion was undermined by the Iraqi invasion, producing a lively rethinking of the country's military doctrine.

Many Saudis now argue that the troubled political environment in the region requires a large standing army. Although there are no public opinion polls to measure it, there appears to be some sentiment in favor of instituting a draft. ``Saudi Arabia could afford a 300,000-man army,'' says Abdullah Kabbas, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh and author of a book on Saudi military policy. ``If it's efficient and mechanized, it could have handled the Iraqi invasion.''

Since the start of the Gulf crisis, thousands of volunteers have swelled the ranks of the Army. But a major build-up in the wake of the crisis still seems unlikely.

``Even now, Saudi Arabia is not likely to build a large army,'' concludes the private analyst. ``The people are ready for a draft, but the government will never allow it.''