(Updates with analyst’s comment in fifth paragraph, Saudi troop size in eighth.)
Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia has prepared a plan to “rebuild and modernize” its armed forces as the kingdom confronts regional risks, military Chief of Staff Gen. Hussein al-Qubail said.
The Saudi military “is closely following the successive developments in the Middle East and is fully aware of and understands the risks surrounding our country and which may pose a threat to its national security,” al-Qubail said in a speech, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. “With the support of our government they will be able to address those risks.”
Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz oversaw the preparation of the plan, which will be presented to Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud at a later date, the Riyadh-based news service cited al- Qubail as saying.
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s largest oil supplier, hasn’t experienced the popular uprisings in the Middle East that led to the toppling of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya this year. Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in March to crush a mainly Shiite-led uprising after accusing Iran of interfering in the affairs of the Persian Gulf country. Iran denies the allegation and accuses Sunni rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of discriminating against Shiites.
“Externally, the Saudis see their greatest threat as Iran, with its potential nuclear bomb capability and aggressive goals in the region,” Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The Saudis see a potentially more violent Iraq as also a problem. The Arab Spring is threatening to them.”
King Abdullah appointed Prince Salman as defense minister on Nov. 5 after naming Nayef bin Abdulaziz al Saud, 78, as the crown prince. The appointments followed the death of Prince Sultan on Oct. 22. Sultan was formerly both crown prince and defense minister.
Sultan, who was appointed minister of defense and aviation in 1963, oversaw the expansion and modernization of the Saudi military into a force that participated in the U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Saudi troops also fought Houthi rebels along the nation’s southern border with Yemen in a three-month battle that ended in February 2010.
Saudi Arabia has 233,500 active military personnel under arms, including 75,000 in the army and 13,500 in the navy, according to data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The Arab world’s biggest economy allocated 170 billion riyals ($45.2 billion) for defense spending in 2010, according to data from the institute.
“A new defense strategy will take lessons learned from the Houthi war in Yemen, events in Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria, as well as the continued threat from Iran,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said in response to e-mailed questions. “The armed forces will likely seek to modernize in such a way that brings technological advancement and better defensive capabilities.”
Saudi Arabia’s military policy has involved relying on the U.S. for protection in return for stable oil supplies. The kingdom spent $11.2 billion on U.S. weapons between 2005 and 2008, making it the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. arms during the period, according to the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
The U.S. Defense Department told Congress in October 2010 that it wanted to sell as much as $60 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, including F-15 fighter jets, attack helicopters, and satellite-guided smart bombs to counter Iranian military ambitions in the Persian Gulf and regional extremists. The weapon sales, if approved, could occur during a 10-year period.
Tensions between predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran have escalated this year. On Oct. 11, the U.S. accused Iran of plotting to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador in Washington. A week earlier, Saudi Arabia accused an unidentified foreign country of seeking to undermine the stability of the kingdom after an attack on security forces in the Shiite village of Awwamiya.
The “surrounding circumstances require” increasing efforts “so that the Saudi armed forces be in the highest degree of combat readiness,” al-Qubail was cited as saying by the news service.
--Editors: Digby Lidstone, John Buckley.
To contact the reporter on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com