What Is Saudi Arabia Going to Do With Its Arms Buildup?

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Saudi security forces take part in a parade rehearsal for the annual hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca on September 5, 2016. Ryan Riegg writes that Saudi Arabia’s massive expansion of its military indicates that hawks within the country may choose to use military action as a hedge against domestic instability caused by the kingdom’s economic decline. Ahmed Jadallah/reuters

In 2010, I moved to Saudi Arabia to work for an international law firm in the midst of an arms-buying bonanza by the kingdom.

Beyond the work I was doing in the defense sector, every residential compound in Riyadh had at least a few arms dealers, on top of large numbers of European security contractors and ex-U.S. military trainers. BAE Systems, the U.K. weapons manufacturer, had so many people peddling arms that it had its own compound, complete with swimming pool and a bar.

While the quantity and purpose of the arms that the Saudis were buying across the world remains something of a mystery, it was not a mystery to the U.S. Shortly after I arrived in Riyadh, President Barack Obama approved a record-breaking $60 billion arms sale to Saudi for weapons that are primarily being used today by the Saudis to bomb Yemen, despite bipartisan objections from the U.S.

To many of his supporters, Obama’s decision to sell U.S. weaponry to an avowed theocracy that still executes women for witchcraft may seem strange. He was, after all, a man who campaigned on a slogan of “hope” and whose wife’s philanthropic activities largely focused on supporting young women throughout the world.

However, Obama’s decision to sell arms to the Saudis was not outside the norms of U.S. policy, especially when the U.S. economy was in serious need of revenue. If anything, the only peculiarity about Obama selling weapons to the Saudis was how much better he was at it than almost any previous president.

To understand why the U.S. sells so many weapons to the Saudis, some historical context may be useful. Since the Cold War, Saudi Arabia has served as a vital ally in constraining Russian power via oil production.

Related: Arab nations face stark choice: Israel or Iran

The export economies of both Saudi Arabia and Russia are based, almost entirely, on oil. However, unlike the oil fields of Russia, where the cost of production is $20 per barrel, Saudi Arabia produces oil for under $10 per barrel. Simply put, if the Saudis pump out oil fast enough, the Russians go broke. So a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship provides a powerful constraint on Russian power.

By selling weapons to Saudi Arabia via a multiyear deal, whose training and maintenance programs would last over half a decade, Obama was cementing a long-standing alliance based on a policy of Russian containment that has existed since the Cold War.

However, Saudi Arabia’s massive expansion of its military—which has continued unabated for six years and involves increasing naval capabilities; troop movements in Aden, Yemen; and plans to train submarine crews in Malaysia—indicates that hawks within Saudi Arabia may choose to use military action, particularly in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, as a hedge against domestic instability caused by the kingdom’s economic decline.

If Saudi Arabia’s economic reforms, which include the initial public offering of its oil company (Aramco), Vision 2030 reforms and OPEC’s production cuts, all fail, which is likely, then hawks may push the kingdom toward actions that could spark a new regional war.

How Saudi Political System Increases the Probability of War in the Middle East

To raise the standard of living of their citizens, all countries face a choice on whether to grow internally through production of new goods and services, or externally, through the conquest of other countries and territories.

The takfiri and theocratic form of Islam promoted by the conservative portions of Saudi Arabia’s religious and political establishment is expansionist by nature. It glorifies conversion by violence and portrays all non-Muslims as inherently inferior.

While not all members of the Saudi government support this form of Islam (and many actively fight against it), it is not an overstatement to say that those who wish for a more modern or tolerant form of Islam face an uphill battle in the kingdom.

Many Saudi educational organizations still use textbooks that instruct Muslim students not to take Christians or Jews as friends and promote conspiracy theories that accuse Western charitable organizations (Rotary, Lions Club, etc.) of plotting to undermine Muslims.

Meanwhile, the kingdom’s religious establishment continues to command Muslims to "hate" Christians, Jews, "polytheists" and other "nonbelievers."  

More problematic than Saudi Arabia’s religious glorification of violence is the theocratic nature of the kingdom’s government, which makes economic growth nearly impossible without violent external expansion.

Saudi Arabia is a theocracy. Religion and state are combined. Power is centralized. No other forms of faith are allowed. No other political parties are allowed. Individual choice in terms of what you can say, what you can watch and whom you can talk to (e.g., women and men cannot speak to each other without the presence of a guardian) is severely limited. Meanwhile, critical thinking in regards to religion is actively discouraged.

Because theocracy severely limits individual choice, it tends to be inhospitable to both creativity and science, both of which are crucial ingredients to economic growth. New products and services tend to be created only when you have a workforce that is free to explore ideas in a society that encourages science and creativity.

Saudi Arabia, like much of the Arab world, is unable to retain scientists or educated workers. Thus, despite spending billions of dollars more on education than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa, the country’s potential for long-term internal growth is severely hampered by a persistent brain drain alongside a chronic failure of performance in science and math.

Additionally, as written about more extensively elsewhere, religious restrictions within Saudi Arabia make it nearly impossible for the kingdom to diversify or grow its non-oil economy. It is very difficult to grow an economy if women cannot drive to work or speak to men and half the labor force is stuck at home due to gender segregation rules.

Meanwhile, mandatory salat (prayer time) rules close all businesses between two and four times every workday for between 15 minutes to an hour each time. During the average Saudi workday, most businesses are closed roughly 10 to 45 percent of the time for either prayer or lunch. It is nearly impossible to have an efficient economy when businesses are closed so often.

The result is that, despite its many reform efforts over the years, nearly 90 percent of Saudis export economy remains based on oil. Thus, as discussed in “Why the Saudis May Be Preparing for a Real War,” due to Saudi Arabia’s increasing consumption of energy, as well as a steady decline in the relative importance of oil in the world economy, it is unlikely that the economy will experience sustained growth in the near term.

Consequently, hawks within Saudi Arabia’s political establishment may have decided to grow their economy not internally but externally, through conquest and violent expansion. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has dedicated 13 percent of its gross domestic product to its military for six years and has become the largest per capita purchaser of weapons in the world.

Countries Facing the Largest Risks from Saudi Military Expansion

At first glance, despite Saudi Arabia’s military buildup over the past six years, the threat of the Saudis directly attacking one of theirs neighbors may seem most unlikely. The U.S. maintains a substantial naval presence in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, supplemented by U.S. (and Japanese) military bases in Bahrain, etc. Ostensibly, if Saudi Arabia invaded a neighbor, the U.S. military would insist that the kingdom desist.

However, if the economic situation in the kingdom gets bad enough, hawks within the Saudi establishment may be able to convince their more moderate counterparts to attack one of the kingdom’s neighbors to stave off domestic discontent, especially if they can promote the idea across government that the U.S. would be unlikely to retaliate against the kingdom.

As discussed in “Why the Saudis May be Preparing for War,” it is likely that the kingdom’s economic decline will continue. Especially if its IPO of Aramco, Vision 2030 reforms and OPEC production cuts fail to live up to expectations. Thus, the probability of Saudi Arabia attacking a neighbor largely depends on four beliefs about the U.S. within the Saudi establishment:

  1. That the American people are too exhausted by 15 years of near-endless involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to engage in another war in a country (Saudi Arabia) filled with adherents to the same form of Islam that inspired the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

  2. That the U.S. military is too dispersed around the world and/or involved with containing Russia to engage in another war in the Middle East, making it especially unlikely that the U.S. would be willing to prosecute a successful war against Saudi Arabia since doing so would likely affect the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Should the U.S. go to war with Saudi Arabia, the entire Muslim world might react violently in the event U.S. soldiers enter the Hijaz region, which would significantly bind the U.S. in terms of strategy and is not something the U.S. military leadership would wish to manage after four years of historically high tensions with Russia.

  3. That the U.S. political elite lack backbone. For the past several years, the Saudis have funneled guns and weapons to ISIS and bombed the near-defenseless country of Yemen with impunity. Therefore, the Saudis may believe that they can do whatever they want and the U.S. will not react, especially given Barack Obamas failure to enforce his "red line" in Syria and speeches by Donald Trump indicating an isolationist worldview that would keep the U.S. out of the Middle East. 

  4. That the U.S. is becoming a net energy exporter. Any event that raises oil and gas prices is partially in America’s interest. If Saudi Arabia starts a war in the Middle East by invading a neighbor (Yemen, Qatar, Iraq, etc.), the biggest loser outside of the region will be Europe, which will have a significant quantity of its energy supply cut off.

And, unless Europe wishes to increase its already substantial dependence on Russian oil and gas, it will have few options but to import more energy from the U.S. Thus, it is not entirely within America’s interest to go to war with Saudi Arabia, regardless of the kingdom’s actions.

Even though the European Union is a historic ally of the U.S., it is not completely within America’s interest to protect European energy supplies coming from the Middle East. Especially since Trump has indicated a dissatisfaction with, as he has put, Europe not paying its "part of the bill" on its defense.

It is unclear to what extent the Saudi military and political establishment holds these four beliefs. If the Saudis do not believe the U.S. will crack down on the kingdom for invading a neighbor, there may be little that would hold the kingdom back from doing so. The political, economic and religious history of the kingdom all push for external expansion through conquest and war over internal expansion through the production of goods and services.

Yemen is the likeliest target for invasion. The country has been bombarded by Saudi Arabia for two years now, and the Saudi propaganda machine has been mostly focused on Yemen’s Houthi rebels since the beginning of the Yemeni civil war.

However, invading Yemen is unlikely to provide Saudi Arabia a significant economic boost, unless Saudi Arabia disrupts the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration refers to as one of the seven major energy choke points in the world (3.8 million barrels of oil head to the West pass through the strait each day, along with the equivalent of 0.5-1 million barrels of natural gas).

Should Saudi Arabia succeed in creating chaos and confusion in the strait through rocket attacks, its significantly expanded naval capabilities or by provoking the Houthis to attack ships in the strait, Europe will be by far the biggest loser, being deprived of over $150 billion worth oil and natural gas per year, making the Europeans more dependent on Russia, Norway, the U.S. and Saudi for their energy needs.

If the strait is disrupted, oil and gas prices will spike and the Saudi economy will profit significantly, especially since the Saudis last year quietly started expanding their East-West pipeline. Thus, should the strait get cut off, the only practical method for nearly all of the Gulf states to export energy to the West will be across Saudi Arabia and/or through its newly expanded East-West pipeline.

Saudi Arabia often claims it is the Houthis who are threatening the strait, but the facts suggest otherwise. The Houthis have occupied multiple locations in the strait over the past two years that would have allowed them to significantly disrupt shipping, but the strait has largely remained open, mostly because shutting it down would severely affect the Houthis’ ally, Iran, which ships millions of barrels of oil and natural gas to Europe through the strait each month.

By comparison, Iranian and Pakistani vessels have been attacked by Saudi Arabia and/or its allies in Yemen on at least two occasions. Meanwhile, there is little to no evidence that the majority of attacks on non-Saudi coalition vessels during the past two years have been carried out by Houthis.

Beyond Yemen, Saudi Arabia could target southern and eastern portions of Iraq (i.e., parts of Al Anbar and Al Muthana), over which it maintained significant tribal influence before Iraq’s government shifted control to Shiite hands.

In terms of specific locations in Iraq, it is doubtful that Saudi Arabia would invade Iraq all the way to Iran’s border. Doing so would invite a direct war with Iran and would lead Saudi Arabia to having to absorb an even greater number of Shiites, which the Saudis would not want.

Rather, in terms of costs and benefits, it is likelier that Saudi Arabia could instead attempt to disrupt the Iraq Strategic Pipeline through a few well-targeted bombs or “terrorist” operations that would raise the value of Saudi oil at relatively low cost to the Saudis.

Having a militant organization blow up pumping stations in Al Muthana or Al Anbar may seem far-fetched, but it would not be the first time such operations have been used in Iraq effectively. The Mosul-Haifa pipeline was blown up both by Arab gangs and the Jewish Irgun several times during the 1930s and the 1940s.

Moreover, hawks in Saudi Arabia have spent the past five years funding the militant organization Nusra Front, which, despite its claims of wanting to overthrow the Syrian regime, has spent more time taking over portions of Al Anbar in Iraq than trying to fight Assad. Meanwhile, guns funneled to ISIS from Saudi Arabia have led to significant oil supply disruptions in northern Iraq that, according to Forbes, have substantially benefited the Saudi regime.

However, in the event that Saudi Arabia did invade Iraq, it would presumably take over portions of Al Muthana and Al Anbar, which are not predominantly Shiite, are sparsely populated and would provide Saudi Arabia two major benefits:

  1. Control over the oil fields in Abu Khaima, Samawa, Salman and Diwan.

  2. Permanent disruption/control of the Iraq Strategic Pipeline.

Should Saudi Arabia disrupt both the Iraq Strategic Pipeline and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Saudi Arabia will have a near monopoly on the transport of Arabian oil and gas to Europe. Most Arabian energy producers will be obliged to export energy either across Saudi Arabia or via far more limited and costly African and Iranian routes.

Beyond Iraq and Yemen, should the Saudi economic situation get bad enough, the country could also attack Qatar. Qatar holds three times as much natural gas as Saudi Arabia, and, more important, the demand for natural gas (which burns cleaner than oil) is quickly increasing in Europe, where natural gas imports increased by 17 percent in 2015.

While the least likely of the three scenarios, an attack on Qatar is still a possibility. The growth of natural gas from Qatar and Iran is the greatest threat to Saudi regional power today. Should Iranian relations with the West improve, should natural gas continue to displace oil and should Saudi Arabia’s economy continue its decline, then the Saudis might attack Qatar as a last resort to stop Qatari natural gas from undermining Saudi oil.

In the short term, deterring Saudi Arabia from using its weapons stockpiles against a neighbor largely depends on promoting the narrative that the West (or a coalition of Arab states) will move against the kingdom should it engage in military aggression. But, in the long term, the greatest deterrent to Saudi expansion may come from within the kingdom itself.

While I’ve worked extensively with members of the Saudi royal family and can say that some in charge of the kingdom care little for the welfare of their region, there are others who wish for a Middle East that is not defined by theocracy and war.

If Trump and other leaders are serious about curbing "radical Islam" and promoting stability in the region, they need to encourage real reformers in the kingdom rather than rely on the young Saudi royals.

Ryan Riegg is a member of the California bar.