Saudi Arabia and Gulf Security
May 17, 2010
The US has not yet defined how it will change its position in the Gulf, or the role of USCENTCOM, once it withdraws from Iraq. It is clear, however, that the Gulf will remain both a critical and a highly unstable region. Containing Iran will be a challenge also long as Iran’s theocracy keeps building Iran’s asymmetric forces, moving towards nuclear capability, and using proxies and non-state actors in neighboring states. Iraq may emerge as a new strategic partner, but it will take a half a decade or more for Iraq to both solve its internal security problems and create the kind of armed forces necessary to defend and deter against foreign threats without outside aid.
This leaves the United States in roughly the same strategic position it has been in since the British withdrawal from the Gulf. No other outside power can project the level of force necessary to secure the region – although Britain and France play an important role in Gulf security. The smaller Gulf states can play an important role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and several provide critical basing facilities for the US, Britain, and France. Nevertheless, their forces are too small and too lacking in interoperability to conduct major military operations or deter a regional power like Iran.
This leaves Saudi Arabia as the most critical single security partner the US has in the Gulf region. Much of the US focus on Saudi Arabia, however, deals with political issues like succession, and its economy and petroleum sector, and not with security. This focus needs to change. Saudi Arabia’s security priorities, its role in the Gulf military balance and the security of petroleum exports, and US and Saudi military cooperation will be critical parts of the US effort to redefine its security position in the Gulf once it has withdrawn from Iraq.
A new series of four briefings by the Burke Chair – entitled Saudi National Security and the Saudi-US Strategic Partnership --addresses these issues, as well as the overall trends in regional security. These briefings are available on the CSIS web site, and each has a different focus:
- Part One: The Civil & Economic Aspects of Security
This briefing addresses an aspect of Saudi security that is often ignored: Saudi Arabia’s need to deal with a steadily increasing and extraordinarily young population and the fact its petroleum wealth does not mean either high levels of employment or anything approaching the per capita income of several other Gulf states. Saudi security must be based on giving priority to economic development, employment, education, and coping with the impact of rapid increases in population. These dynamics are as critical as Saudi counterterrorism and defense capabilities, and security cooperation with the Kingdom must be based on an understanding of their importance and impact.
- Part Two: The Conventional Military Balance, Missile Warfare, and the Impact of Weapons of Mass Destruction
This briefing examines the trends in the conventional military balance in the Gulf, and shows the critical role that Saudi Arabia plays in both the overall regional balance and within the Gulf Security Council. It highlights the acute weaknesses in Iran’s conventional warfare fighting capabilities, and the reasons why Iran has turned to missiles, a nuclear program, and asymmetric warfare.
At the same time, it shows just how much Saudi Arabia has invested in its conventional military capabilities and that it vastly outspends Iran on both security and arms imports. It also shows how effective the Southern Gulf states could be if they made serious efforts to develop true interoperability; and integrated command and control, sensor, and intelligence systems; and effective common training and exercises. Iran is not a military hegemon in any meaningful sense, but the lack of real military cooperation within the GCC remains a critical self-inflicted wound that sharply increases dependence on the US and gives Iran strength by default.
The conventional balance, however, is only part of the story. Iran is far from having effective long-range missile forces, and will either need conventional warheads with terminal guidance or nuclear warheads to make its missile forces effective. It is, however, making a massive effort to develop better long-range missiles, and – in the process – has sharply increased the need for regional missile defenses. This makes Saudi and other GCC coverage for missile defense a critical priority. It also highlights why current US efforts to examine options for “regional extended deterrence” may be critical in restructuring the US security partnership with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
- Part Three: The Regional Security Environment: Asymmetric Warfare, Peripheral Threats, and Terrorism
This report examines the trends in asymmetric warfare capabilities, terrorism, and the threat posed by non-state actors. It shows how vulnerable petroleum and transport facilities are in the region, as well as key coastal facilities like electric power and desalination plants.
It also shows that Iran has created and trained large forces for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, and specialized forces to train non-state actors and use them as potential proxies. At the same time it highlights the continuing levels of violence in Iraq and the importance of creating a stable and secure Iraq as a key aspect of Gulf and energy security.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and the US face additional asymmetric threats from instability in Yemen and Somalia, and from terrorists groups like Al Qa’ida in the Peninsula (AQIP). AQIP presents the most serious immediate threat to Saudi security. The spillover of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and their impact on Jordan present additional threats, as does the rise in piracy.
- Part Four: The Defense Aspects of Saudi Security
This briefing examines Saudi Arabia’s national security policies and major priorities for improving its military capabilities. It examines the role of the US advisory effort, and the current patterns in US FMS sales. These are critical aspects of any effort to strengthen US and Saudi security relations, and to improve Saudi and other GCC capabilities to defend the Gulf region.
At the same time, it shows just how much Saudi Arabia has invested in its conventional military capabilities and that it vastly outspends Iran on both.