Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bid Salman laid out part of his country’s strategic challenge in an April 25 interview.
“We have a problem with military spending,” the prince told Al Arabiya. “When I enter a Saud military base, the floor is tiled with marble, the walls are decorated and the finishing is five stars. I enter a base in the U.S., you can see the pipes in the ceiling, the floor is bare, no marble and no carpets. It’s made of cement. … We are the third- or fourth-largest in terms of military spending in the world, yet our army is ranked in the twenties.”
If anything, the crown prince-designate is being overly generous to his military establishment. Going back to the foundation of modern Saudi Arabia, the Saudi military has been an expensive paperweight. Riyadh has used its oil heft to purchase foreigners to fight its wars. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Saudis flat-out paid a coalition to defend their country and liberate their neighbor. In the years since, Riyadh hired so many Pakistani pilots that the Saudi air force for a time felt as Pakistani as Pakistan’s own. Even today Riyadh maintains vast warehouses packed with shrink-wrapped Abrams tanks and Apache attack helicopters awaiting foreign operators to fight wars on Riyadh’s behalf.
In the Saudi mind those operators would always be American, a people so dependent upon energy imports and so wrapped up in maintaining the global order that they would fight and die to defend the Saudi nation and way of life.
America’s shale revolution has changed all that. Shale oil production has proven increasingly cost-effective. So much so that U.S. oil output is holding steady despite the oil price collapse. This is doing more than edge the Americans towards energy independence, it is also remaking American industry. Cheap oil and nearly free natural gas is overhauling sectors ranging from petrochemicals to electricity to manufacturing and placing an extra $2000 a year per family in the citizenry’s pockets.
Between shale’s cavalcade of changes and a rationalization of America’s foreign policy that is as long-overdue as it is all-encompassing, the Americans no longer need Saudi oil and no longer really care if the Persian Gulf stays open.
And so the Saudis are taking their first (grumbling) steps towards standing on their own feet — and firing their own guns. It will be a long, hard, costly slog. Saudi Arabia has no indigenous regular military expertise, no related skill sets in logistics or industry to call upon. What they do have is loads of pre-purchased equipment and a metric butt-ton of cash to hire trainers from every corner of the globe. And even before the crown-prince-to-be’s announcement, their new stratagem is bearing fruit.
The Saudis’ primary concern is Iran, a country eager to move into the vacuum the Americans’ absence is creating. An early Iranian move helped trigger (another) civil war in Yemen, a country in southern Arabia largely irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t border it. Unfortunately for the Saudis, their country is one of the two. In the war, the Saudis have intervened directly, boldly, and at the head of an alliance of states who likewise fear the Iranian rise. The Saudi effort has been marred by a mess of mistakes: high civilian casualties, lots of friendly fire, logistical bottlenecks and outright shortages, extreme unit attrition caused by inexperience in fighting guerrilla forces, and so on.
Yet I cannot help but be impressed by what the Saudis have achieved. A year ago I felt that Yemen presented the Saudis with a chance to showcase their utter military incompetence. Instead Iran’s efforts have been heavily unwound and there is absolutely no chance that Iran’s proxies will carry on to victory so long as the Saudis remain committed. Yemen has proven to be a great test of the Saudis’ war-fighting, and it is a test in which they get a passable grade. Just as importantly, the Saudis have not been fighting alone or limited their activities to Yemen; they now lead a coalition of Gulf Arab states in Syria and Libya as well.
This military and diplomatic activity will prove great practice for the fight to come.
Iran is beginning to comprehend that the Saudis see this as a fight to the death. When that truly sinks in, Iran will realize it has to go for the throat and remove the Saudis’ primary enabler: the Saudi oil fields. That can only be done via outright military occupation. Prince Salman realized this nearly two years ago and everything — from the oil price war to destabilize Iran’s finances to the Yemen and Syrian conflicts to challenge Iran’s strategic position to today’s announcement on military rationalization — is about preparing Saudi Arabia to fend off a direct Iranian assault, and to do so without meaningful American assistance.