While enthusiasm for military transformation is growing, the changes that the Saudi leadership is seeking remain unachieved. The Transformation Team within the Saudi ministry of defense (SMoD) under the leadership of Khalid Al-Biyari, a relatively new assistant defense minister, is overseeing the planned integration of SMoD armed forces—land forces (army), air force, navy, air defense, and the strategic missile force—to function under something akin to the UK’s joint operational command (JOC) based in its Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ). Jointery—armed service branches operating in coordination under an inter-service command—is essential to modern war-fighting. Yet, the SMoD continues to exclude the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) the most advanced Saudi armed force, as well as the Presidency of Public Security (the PPS) and the Ministry of Interior. SANG’s continued autonomous status reflects hesitancy about provoking its tribal base, while the PPS is shaping up to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s praetorian guard at the expense of what’s left of the Ministry of Interior. 

The Saudis are establishing their own PJHQ. Western allies see this positively, but while buildings and teaching military doctrine are welcome, many remain skeptical about the potential for any substantive change. It is not clear whether there is a serious desire to implement the widespread personnel changes needed to break down the Saudi armed forces’ silo mentality. Aside from the replacement of retirees, the expected appointment of 800 new military officers has yet to materialize, 18 months later. Without a major overhaul at the two-star officer level and below, SMoD’s separate armed services will continue to function as silos. 

Disjointed Jointery

At present, the SMoD JOC chief—the three-star officer, General Fahad bin Turki reports directly to the minister of defense, Mohammed bin Salman. In the UK model that is influencing Saudi Arabia’s thinking, the PJHQ Head reports to the Chief of Staff (CoS), just as all of the single service chiefs do. The CoS then reports to the secretary of state for defense—both of whom sit on the UK’s National Security Council (NSC). The fact that bin Turki does not report to the Saudi CoS (General Fayyad Al-Ruwaili, a four-star and bin Turki’s superior) is a problem. Without the CoS being organizationally involved, and without a major and wholesale set of organizational and personnel changes from top to bottom, jointery will not go beyond new buildings and shiny nameplates. 

The structural basis for the Saudi JOC raises an important issue. The UK CoS reports to the prime minister via the secretary of state for defense and the NSC. However, the Saudi Royal Court has not created a comparable reporting level for the JOC other than, nominally, to the MBS-chaired Council for Political & Security Affairs. Clear and meaningful chains of command are important to the organizational reform of any country’s military.

In addition to the Saudi JOC, there is a new Saudi security coordination body of a different order. Saudi Arabia’s nascent National Risk Unit reflects UK influence and (ex-military) advice and is akin to the NSC. Importantly, the latter brings together the UK’s military top brass, heads of the security services, relevant ministers, and the prime minister in consideration of domestic security threats from terrorism, cyber-attacks, and more. The Saudi version is currently still in its infancy, but, regrettably, it seems unlikely that the Saudi leadership is going to sit around the table in the NSC’s collegiate fashion. 

National Guard: Guarding What?

SANG is completing the establishment of its staff college with assistance from the UK. On the one hand, this is an important boost to British leverage and an aid to SANG officers’ grasp of doctrine. On the other hand, a more welcome development will be the planned Saudi national defense college, assuming it will be open to all elements of Saudi armed capability, whether inside or outside of SMoD. 

The UK has provided military assistance to SANG for nearly six decades. The British Military Mission first advised a National Guard under Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz that transformed from a crude amalgam of tribal levies into a putative regime security force. The British Military Mission is currently a small group of officers on permanent loan to the Kingdom, training SANG officers in counterterrorism, including IEDs, hostage rescue, close protection, and hajj security. The much larger UK role in SANG is via SANG Communications, and involves both loaned UK service personnel as well as UK nationals working under a UK MoD contract. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, has 80 uniformed and loaned U.S. military officers in SANG. 

The clichéd presentation of SANG as an elite regime protection force has long lost much meaning, as it is no longer that militarily capable. The only meaningful modern military test inside the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, has seen SANG fare little better than the Saudi Land Forces who, likewise, have had only limited deployments in Yemen. The Royal Saudi Air Force has been much more noticeable. A sign that the Saudis might downscale their role in Yemen is that aging F5 fighter aircraft are rumored to be undergoing preparation for active service. This could mean that Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni allies would be given these Saudi cast-offs, or that the Royal Saudi Air Force doesn’t want to be dependent on more high tech aircraft that are vulnerable to Western supply constraints due to controversy over Saudi air strikes that have led to Yemeni civilian deaths.

In terms of SANG’s touted traditional role as a regime security force, its lack of tanks makes this implausible. Furthermore, SANG has arguably outlived its utility as a separate force with its ministry. It has come under tighter spending control than SMoD, including the prized health service it provides its employees and their families. Major international contracts that were already firmly in place are still honored, but past grander ambitions—including new helicopter and armored vehicle purchases—are formally in the hands of General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI), which effectively means the Royal Court. The senior royal now running SANG, Prince Khaled bin Abdullah bin Bandar, has however secured a financial boost to keep its tribal base content. 

SANG’s aging military leadership remains powerful, while Abdel-Mohsen Al-Twaijerie continues as deputy head for administration. There have been new figures appointed to individual SANG commands like armored vehices, communications, and training as a customary change of personnel, not a major overhaul. Like the widely touted defense changes, reforms within SANG are developmental, not transformational. SANG is neither facing substantive cost cutting nor absorption into SMoD—a necessary move for any meaningful JOC. 

Controlling Spending, Not Transforming

The Saudi military transformation boils down to better cash control and a modest domestic defense industry. Controlling money as a way to deepen both political control and domestic credibility is a hallmark of the present Saudi leadership. GAMI is the formal defense face of this leadership tactic, but this does not yet have substantive meaning beyond MBS determining the procurement of major defense items. 

Saudi’s Vision 2030 target means that GAMI and the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) have 11 years to ensure that 50 percent of new defense kit is produced in country. This is unlikely. However, in-country military production deals with external defense partners like the U.S., UK, and France will be increasingly demanded. A SAMI board member with such experience, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, is now foreign minister. His appointment might be an imaginative overlap between foreign policy and defense industry development. Or it is just an affirmation of the obvious: bin Farhan is a leadership insider. 

GAMI is supposed to be ensuring domestic defense industry capability, yet the KSA does not have many capabilities beyond producing superannuated widgets. While Saudi Arabia is getting more serious about ensuring in-country production capability and knowledge transfer as part of its offset agreements with Western defense and non-defense industry suppliers, the Kingdom has a long way to go before it even gets level with the UAE’s still limited defense industry.

The attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 took the majority of the Kingdom’s oil production and processing offline for several days. It emphasized to the Saudis the need to be more responsible for ensuring their security. U.S.-supplied air defense equipment proved inadequate to the contemporary missile threat. Saudi defense industry ambitions are unlikely to address this fundamental national security challenge.

The obstacles to the development of the Saudi defense industry are partly about capability and will, and partly about strategic relations with supplier countries guarding their technological expertise. In time, Saudi interest in greater arms supplies from Russia and China might depend on these countries assisting Saudi defense industry development more than the West. There are few signs at present that Moscow or Beijing is willing to do this. 

In any case, it would be a matter of the KSA trying to run before it can walk. If broader Saudi defense transformation remains captive to the traditional differences between Gulf rhetoric, ambition, will, and practicality, then Saudi Arabia’s defense and security landscape is unlikely to change. 

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.