Saudi Arabia’s changes to its defense and security sector that have so far included new military leadership, a planned recruitment of new officers, and a proposed joint operational command headquarters, are ostensibly aimed at addressing operational incapacity. However, political considerations drive these changes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidates his control over the country’s military and security apparatus, which will likely impede desirable operational improvements.

Mohammed bin Salman, also minister of defense, named the commander of the (limited) war effort of the Royal Saudi Land Army (RSLA) in Yemen, HRH Prince Lieutenant General Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, joint forces commander in February. According to one of the unpublished ‘operational targets’ of the Saudi Ministry of Defense (SMoD), a Joint Operational Command (JOC) headquarters is also planned.1 Fahd bin Turki is, like the new army and air defense chiefs who were also appointed at the same time, a three-star general but still junior to all the separate service chiefs.2 However, the concomitant appointment of the well-regarded Fayyad al-Ruwaili as chief of the general staff (CGS) could help establish a substantive JOC as he may be able to encourage the rest of the senior Saudi military to back reform. 

In addition to changes to some of the top brass, the 800 new officer appointments planned over the next eighteen months are expected to improve the country’s military capabilities.3 In the Saudi military, however, having the four-star rank of CGS provides armed forces oversight but not centralized military command. Furthermore, the top brass all report directly to the defense minister, the crown prince himself. At present, there is no deputy defense minister and just one relatively old assistant minister. Potentially assisting the proposed changes, five new SMoD officials (two assistant defense ministers and three undersecretaries), most of whom will have dedicated responsibilities, are expected to be appointed over the summer.4 Interviews for five assistant minister positions have already been conducted.5 

In practice however, these reforms seem to be more about trying to project a convincing battlefield capability in advance of the next war, and less about achieving a decisive victory in Yemen. Saudi armed forces have only limited—and quite disastrous—on-the-ground battlefield experience, as evidenced when the RSLA conducted a ground invasion of Yemen over the winter of 2009–2010. Furthermore, the Saudi navy is widely regarded as a joke due to it having been politically undervalued and under-resourced, an absurd situation given that the greatest threat to Saudi national security is maritime. 

There are political and practical reasons for the crown prince to continue avoiding an extensive deployment of Saudi armed forces on the ground in Yemen. Saudi military and civilian casualties from this war are much more significant than officially admitted.6 Mohammed bin Salman, like previous Saudi leaders, also fears a potential coup if there are too many soldiers under arms. This fear was one reason why the still tribally based Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) was founded by Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (later King Abdullah) over fifty years ago as a dedicated regime security force that continues to be totally separate from the armed forces that make up SMoD. Until November 2017, SANG was run by Abdullah’s son, Miteb.7  

SANG is now formally headed by Khaled al-Muqrin, a minor royal who is respected in SANG as a former battalion commander. Unlike Miteb, al-Muqrin is an unlikely source of resistance to the crown prince should he wish to encroach on the Guard’s autonomy. This autonomy is currently preserved by keeping SANG and SMoD separate as two ministries: a useful situation in case of a threat to Mohammed bin Salman’s authority from within. Furthermore, Mohammed bin Salman might be wary of pushing a privileged tribal body with residual Abdullah family loyalty too far. 

SANG is more capable than the RSLA, but like the Border Guard which is run by the Ministry of Interior (MoI), they are also “getting hammered” in Yemen, according to a well-placed western observer.8 SANG, like the Border Guard and RSLA, engages in “skirmishes”9 across the Yemen border, as well as more regular interventions in north Yemen. While effective in guarding the Saudi (and Bahraini) regimes, SANG’s lack of battlefield experience, coupled with Yemeni guerrilla capabilities, weakens its capacity in Yemen, as it does other Saudi armed forces.

In Saudi Arabia talk about jointery—all branches of the armed forces working in sync in theory and practice—raises the question of what Mohammed bin Salman will do with SANG and whether the commitment to a meaningful JOC is actually a pretext for stripping SANG of much of the rival military power it has built up. However, if Mohammed bin Salman had intended to wholly absorb SANG into SMoD, then November, when Miteb was removed, would have been an opportune time to do it. SANG arguably needs significant reform, yet apart from routine retirement and indications that some middle-ranking SANG officers have departed, the top brass and even Miteb’s civilian administrator remain in place. Still SANG—regardless of who heads it—could be stripped of some of its prized kit including Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. 

At present, SANG is still replicating some of SMoD’s functions, with strategic spending continuing unabated, including building up SANG’s five armoured-vehicle brigades and its three air-wing brigades that would be more useful for warfare if they were transferred to SMoD. This spending continues despite the fact that any major procurement needs a Ministry of Finance sign-off as part of Mohammed bin Salman’s declared anti-corruption drive. This, and the wide-ranging set of organizational and personnel changes throughout the Kingdom, means that authority has become highly centralized under Mohammed bin Salman’s almost exclusive leadership.

Like SANG, the MoI has military capabilities but stands outside of SMoD and of current JOC proposals. In a smart bit of royal politics, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud replaced his uncle, Mohammed bin Naif, as interior minister when the latter was deposed as crown prince in June 2017, while Abdulaziz’s father, Mohammed bin Naif brother Saud, was kept on as Eastern Province governor. However, the MoI’s all-important counterterrorism (CT) role was given to the Presidency of State Security (PSS), a body Mohammed bin Salman created in June 2017 that answers directly to King Salman. Its head, General Abdulaziz al-Howeirini, worked closely with Mohammed bin Naif at the MoI on their counterterrorism efforts. His appointment and reporting line likely indicate his loyalty to Mohammed bin Salman, but the choice was apparently at the insistence of the CIA, disgruntled by Mohammed bin Salman so upsetting the carefully cultivated CT structure they had played a major part in shaping.10 

PSS is made up of the powerful Mubaheth (General Investigations Department)—the eyes and ears of the MoI and now of the PSS as well. PSS spokesman Brigadier General Bassam al-Attiya argues that corruption can be more damaging than terrorism in weakening the state. The Mubaheth likely played an active role in the November 2017 Ritz Carlton Hotel detentions. PSS also has three Special Forces branches, including an aviation wing that, not least given the proposed military reorganization, would be better off in the regular armed forces under SMoD. General al-Attiya explained that PSS’s dedicated CT role requires it to have such a wide range of forces, even though he pointedly implied that change might be coming.11 The PSS also has an advanced cyber operation, just one of three within the overall Saudi military and security infrastructure. 

Despite the recent reshuffling, grand plans for fundamental restructuring to give the Kingdom a credible and self-reliant battlefield capacity, are still on the drawing board. Promoting relatively young military men—compared to those they have replaced—is one thing. But in practical and political terms, the game plan to make a reality of ambitions that need both time and will is unclear. Mohammed bin Salman’s centralization of power paradoxically makes fundamental military change both possible to get underway and more difficult to complete. Without a Saudi leader devolving power to a truly empowered military general in real operational command of all Saudi forces with a military role, the meaning and substance of a joint and capable Saudi armed force will be elusive.12

Neil Partrick is the editor and lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, second edition, April 2018). Follow him on Twitter @neilpartrick.

1. The author was discreetly shown a copy of the chart. 
2. Lt. General Fahd Al-Mutair appointed Commander, RSLF; and Lt. General Mazyad.
3. Al-Amr appointed Commander, Air Defence Forces.
4. U.K. embassy source, Riyadh, May 13, 2018.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Estimates vary widely but all far exceed reported numbers. Author’s interviews with Saudi-based analysts, Riyadh, May 3-6, 2018.
8. SANG is around 100,000-strong, but its patronage network is far wider, given the extent of its health and other provisions for Guard members’ families.
9. Interview, Riyadh, May 13, 2018.
10. Interview, Riyadh, May 3, 2018.
11. Locally-based analyst, May 6, Op.Cit.
12. Interview at PSS HQ, Riyadh, May 13, 2018. The last person to get close to occupying such a position of uniformed authority, Prince General Khalid bin Sultan, formally resigned as military chief in 1991 after having his ambitions thwarted.