Can Saudi Arabia become America’s new gendarme in the Persian Gulf?

by Paul Iddon

US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud take part in a signing ceremony at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. According to Trump this "tremendous" arms deal with the Saudis will bring billions worth of jobs and investment in the United States. ( Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP).

US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud take part in a signing ceremony at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. According to Trump this “tremendous” arms deal with the Saudis will bring billions worth of jobs and investment in the United States. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP).

Over the next decade the United States may provide the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with as much as $350 billion worth of military hardware, which would dwarf the already exorbitant deals carried out in the last decade which have lavished Riyadh’s military with large quantities of hi-tech weapons.

US President Donald Trump’s already put his name to an agreement of various “intended sales” worth $110 billion during his visit to the kingdom last month. According to ABC News “only approximately $25 billion of the $110 billion [is] in the actual pipeline, and future sales are not guaranteed”.

There has also been talk about the Saudis taking a leading role in countering Iranian military power in the Gulf region by building up its military. This is another highly dubious prospect, but one worth evaluating all the same since it has an informative historical precedent.

“The package of defense equipment and services supports the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of malign Iranian influence and Iranian related threats,” read a statement on the State Department’s official website. “Additionally, it bolsters the Kingdom’s ability to provide for its own security and continue contributing to counterterrorism across the region, reducing the burden on U.S. military forces,” the fact sheet adds (Emphasis ours).

The fact sheet’s language, whether intentional or not, echoes the Nixon administration’s policy towards the Shah’s Iran in the early 1970s. Under the Nixon Doctrine, aimed at reducing the US’s then overstretched role in the world, the Shah became the predominant military force in the region. This in turn saved the US from having to send forces to secure its interest in, and keep the Soviets out of, that region following the withdrawal of the British in 1971. US President Richard Nixon, an old friend of the Shah before his presidency, summed up the responsibility his administration was delegating to Iran when he asked the Iranian ruler to: “Protect me”.

The Shah of Iran oversees his navy when Tehran was America's gendarme in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s (Screenshot from BBC documentary "The Last Shah").

The Shah of Iran oversees his navy when Tehran was America’s gendarme in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s (Screenshot from BBC documentary “The Last Shah“).

“Nixon’s choice of words were extraordinary. The president of the United States had traveled to the court of the shah of Iran to ask Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to protect him” noted Roham Alvandi in his book on the period, “Nixon Kissinger and the Shah“. Shortly thereafter the Shah began his manic military build-up. In the 1970s Tehran bought advanced non-nuclear US military hardware, including a large fleet of sophisticated F-14 Tomcats air superiority fighter jets. The Shah, as Alvandi also points out, rightly boasted to his court minister, Asadollah Alam, that Nixon “gave me everything I asked for”.

Nevertheless, as his power and relevance grew as a result of this policy, the Shah had his frustrations. His military – made up as it was by an impressive array of American-made warplanes and British-made armor and naval vessels – depended largely on the importation of spare parts, which he frequently complained, in interviews with the Western press, he could only purchase at inflated prices. So, while a rising military power in the region Iran still relied heavily on its Western allies to keep their hi-tech hardware operational.

Today the Saudi military relies on the West for almost everything when it comes to maintaining their military hardware. Riyadh is trying to rectify this by establishing a state-run company to manufacture its own arms, ammunition and radars. Even if they succeed in this endeavor they will nevertheless remain heavily reliant on outside assistance. Throughout their bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, for example, they relied on the Americans for midair refueling.

To practically “police” the Gulf the Royal Saudi Navy has eight French-built frigates (the newer La Fayette-class and older 1980s Al Madinah-class), four American-made corvettes and nine patrol boats, along with three British-made minesweepers at its disposal. They do not possess any submarines. Riyadh also intends to purchase American littoral combat ships.

Saudi Navy ships in the King Abdul-Aziz Naval Base of Jubail in 1990.

Saudi Navy ships in the King Abdul-Aziz Naval Base of Jubail in 1990.

The Iranians, on the other hand, have three aged frigates from the Shah’s time, several small attack craft, three Russian-made Kilo-class diesel submarines, purchased in the 1990s, and 21 domestically-produced midget submarines. While modest Tehran has focused heavily on self-sufficiency in its navy.

It is possible to make some broad analogies between the Nixon Doctrine and President Trump’s current contention, voiced numerous times during the presidential election, that US allies, especially NATO states, should take greater responsibility for their own defense. Nevertheless, Riyadh can still count on, and will probably have to count on for years to come, Washington to come to its aid if attacked and more generally to maintain its military in both peace and wartime. It’s unclear if the Trump administration has any specific security roles it wants the Saudis to play in the region in coming years.

Talk of an Arab NATO is surely premature. The historic analogy to the ineffective and ultimately failed Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) alliance doesn’t inspire much confidence, nor does the fact that the 34-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism announced by Riyadh in December 2015 hasn’t yet amounted so much, if anything at all. The Saudis did form a much more tangible multinational coalition of regional states, along with Egypt and Sudan, to bomb the Houthis in Yemen in early 2015 but failed to convince Egypt and Pakistan to contribute large numbers of ground troops.

All state which were part of the CENTO alliance (in green) throughout its existence, 1955-79.

Nevertheless, the Trump administrations’ instilling of a belief in Riyadh that its regional role is being elevated by spending even more on American hardware, flawed as it is, has already yielded windfalls for major American arms firms. CNN Money pointed out that shares in Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon have already risen as a direct result of Trump’s latest deal.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predictably, denounced the move, going so far as to depict the Saudis as a “cow being milked” by the United States.

Another analogy to Iran in the 1970s is of crucial importance to consider. During that time the Shah’s continued rule appeared a sure thing to the US government. Many questioned the stability of the Saudi regime and believed the House of Saud, which in the late 1970s struggled to combat militants who dug themselves into the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was the regional regime most at risk of collapse – while the Shah’s Iran, in US President Jimmy Carter’s famous misjudgement, represented “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas in the world.” Today, nearly four decades later, the House of Saud stands and the Pahlavi Dynasty remains in exile and long out of power.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi speaks to people about principles of White Revolution in 1963.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi speaks to people about principles of White Revolution in 1963.

The Saudis are fundamentally diversifying their economy, to lessen their overwhelming reliance on income from oil exports, as part of their Vision 2030 program. The top-down implementation of wide-ranging reforms in such a deeply-rooted conservative society in a relatively short period of time, less than 15 years, is bound to have repercussions, albeit not necessarily revolutionary, as happened in Iran just under four decades ago.

The Iranian ruler sought to rapidly transform and modernize the country in a short period of time: from the wide-ranging top-down land reforms, known as the White Revolution, introduced in 1963 to the rapid build-up and modernization of the country, largely made possible by the increase in the price of oil in the mid-1970s, until his fall from power in 1979.

Not unlike this Saudi Arabia is undertaking “a revolution” which they have “disguised as economic reform”. Also like the Shah’s Iran these fundamental reforms will not include the introduction of political freedoms for the kingdom’s subjects. As with Iran these fundamental changes could produce destabilizing and tumultuous results at a time as the kingdom’s military arsenal grows exponentially larger and larger. If this proves so in the foreseeable future Riyadh will certainly not fit the bill as a reliable and competent power to police the wider neighborhood.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Iddon, Saudi Arabia, Security Policy.

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