SECURITY PERCEPTIONS AND POLICIES
The Military Threat
Until Iraq concentrated its forces on Saudi Arabia's northeastern
border after the occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the kingdom had
been exposed to few direct threats to its territory. The only
overtly hostile actions were from Yemeni-based Egyptian air and
naval units in 1963, PDRY forces that attacked Saudi border posts
in 1969 and 1973, and Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian
Gulf in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the nation's wide geographic
expanse and lengthy coastlines on both the Red Sea and Persian
Gulf, combined with a small, scattered population, presented unusual
problems of defense. With the world's largest reserves of oil
and vulnerable oil processing facilities, the kingdom saw itself
as a tempting target for aggressive forces. Moreover, it was militarily
weak in a highly volatile region of the world, amid heavily armed
and potentially hostile neighbors.
Until the late 1980s, Saudi security concerns focused on the
communist influence in nearby countries, notably in Ethiopia and
the PDRY, which gave the Soviet Union access to naval facilities
in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia interpreted the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in December 1979 as a means of establishing a staging
area for future operations in the Persian Gulf. The revolution
in Iran earlier that year produced a radical Shia-dominated regime
in Tehran and introduced a far more immediate threat to gulf stability.
Iranian belligerence led Saudi Arabia to support Iraq during the
Iran-Iraq War. The heating up of the tanker war in 1987 escalated
tensions. The Saudis, concerned about domestic attitudes and the
reaction of Arab states, discouraged deeper United States involvement
in the crisis. In April 1987, the United States agreed to Kuwait's
request that Kuwaiti tankers sail under the United States flag
with naval escorts. Saudi Arabia cooperated with this operation
by assisting in mine clearance and air surveillance.
The Saudi leadership considered Iran's condemnation of the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and its adherence to United Nations
(UN) sanctions during the Persian Gulf War to be welcome signs
of moderation. The overthrow of the Marxist regime in Addis Ababa
in 1991 and the collapse of Soviet influence in the Middle East
further reduced the threat of radical influences near the kingdom's
The Persian Gulf War in 1991 battered the offensive capability
of Iraq's formidable military machine. An estimated forty divisions
were lost or rendered ineffective. About twothirds of Iraq's 4,500
tanks were destroyed as well as more than 2,000 artillery pieces.
Nevertheless, the Iraqi army's active manpower strength was an
estimated 380,000 at the war's end, including three divisions
of the Republican Guards, the troops considered most loyal to
President Saddam Husayn. Despite crippling blows to its fighting
potential, Iraq remained a potential adversary and a long-term
security threat to Saudi Arabia's limited forces.
Relations with Yemen have always been troubled in modern times.
The border has been the scene of periodic tribal clashes and boundary
disputes. The Riyadh government's bases in the southern desert
enabled it to maintain ground and air units near the Yemeni frontier.
Saudi Arabia had subsidized the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR--North
Yemen) government and the northern Yemeni tribes and tried to
isolate the Marxist government of the PDRY.
The reuniting of the two Yemens in May 1990 left Saudi Arabia
uneasy that secular leftist elements of a more populous combined
Yemen might prevail over the Islamic conservatism of the former
YAR. Relations worsened when Yemen came out in support of Iraq,
after the latter's invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia retaliated
by deporting about 1 million Yemeni workers whose repatriated
earnings had formed a major part of Yemen's economy.
Long stretches of uninhabited desert, known as the Empty Quarter,
or Rub al Khali, formed disputed territory between Yemen and Saudi
Arabia. To counter Yemeni smuggling and to maintain better surveillance
of the border area, Saudi Arabia announced in 1991 that it was
seeking bids on an electronic security system to detect illegal
crossings. In 1992 Saudi Arabia demanded that foreign oil companies
discontinue test drilling in parts of the disputed territory that
had long been under Yemeni control. The kingdom was thought to
fear that a surge of oil revenues could be used to modernize the
Yemeni armed forces. Saudi border patrols were increased and,
according to the Yemenis, Saudi agents were active among residents
of the disputed area for the purpose of undermining Yemen's authority.
Saudi Arabia viewed with concern the possibility of renewed Arab-Israeli
hostilities and the strong Israeli military establishment was
seen as a potential threat to its security. Accordingly, Saudi
Arabia considered a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian
question a primary objective of its policies. The Saudis linked
the influence of revolutionary Arab regimes to the continuation
of the Arab-Israeli confrontation and the Israeli occupation of
Arab territory on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia
did not see war with Israel as an imminent threat, but it feared
Israel's ability to mount strategic air strikes against sensitive
Saudi targets at the outset of any future Arab-Israeli conflict.
The possibility of such preemptive strikes by Israel had impelled
Saudi Arabia to commit a major part of its modern air defense
to its northern border zones. The most likely Israeli targets
in the kingdom would be the complex of military bases around Tabuk
in the northwest or the pipeline terminal and other oil facilities
at Yanbu al Bahr on the Red Sea. More distant Saudi targets could
be reached with aerial refueling.
In spite of past differences and their considerable military
strengths, the neighboring Islamic countries of Egypt and Syria
were not regarded in 1992 as potential adversaries. In certain
respects, Saudi Arabia's geographic position on the peninsula
was a favorable one. The harshness of its interior desert practically
limited overland attack to the northwest corner facing Jordan
and Syria and to the northeast corridor parallel to the Persian
Gulf. Harassing attacks by air or sea could be very damaging,
however, disrupting oil production and tanker traffic.
Countries surrounding the Arabian Peninsula--although heavily
armed--were poorly equipped to mount and sustain a full-scale
invasion by sea or air. Saudi Arabia would be less prepared to
deal with intervention by a neighboring power in one of the smaller
states of the peninsula, using local disturbances or turmoil as
a pretext and then expanding its position. The politically vulnerable
gulf oil states had been subject to outside intervention in the
past; for this reason, Saudi Arabia and the smaller states had
joined to form a system for collective security.
Data as of December 1992