Saudi Arabia gets little bang for its buck for investing in its armed forces – but that may be about to change

By Armida van Rij

Nearly 50% of all UK-manufactured arms are exported to Saudi Arabia. Some of these weapons are being used to wage war in Yemen, a war which, by conservative UN estimate, has caused 5,295 civilian deaths between March 2015 and November 2017. Now Saudi Arabia is looking to increase its military strength further.

Since 2015 the Kingdom has been leading a coalition of predominantly Arab states in an increasingly costly proxy war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are allegedly being backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. The war, which has reached a military stalemate, has had a high financial – as well as human – cost: as much as $5-6 billion a month by some estimates.

Last Monday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a series of royal decrees signalling an overhaul of the Saudi Ministry of Defence (MoD), based on recommendations of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who’s tipped to be the King’s successor.

Ostensibly, the main aim of the overhaul is to increase the performance and professionalism of the Saudi Arabian armed forces, which currently has a notoriously poor reputation – despite the country being the world’s fourth largest spender on defence and first in terms of percentage of GDP.

The quagmire in Yemen has underscored how possessing the latest military equipment and having top foreign military advisors cannot make up for a poorly trained and under-performing armed forces that are heavily dependent on its air force.

The royal decrees issued last week saw the naming of a new military chief of staff, and new commanders for the land forces, air forces and air defence forces. While the extent to which these new appointees will seek to drastically shift current Saudi military strategy in Yemen is still an open question, it is unlikely the new chief of staff will devise a new strategy for Yemen at this stage. The overhaul is predominantly geared towards an external audience, to showcase the continued trend of reforms under MBS.

Over the long term, there are likely to be implications for Saudi Arabia’s defence procurement and the professionalism of its forces. The country had already planned to decrease its reliance on western partners for defence equipment, and has set a goal of spending 50% of its defence equipment budget procuring from domestic industries by 2030, up from just 2% in 2016.

Coupled with the pursuit of a new culture within the MoD whereby promotions are based on merit, it is clear that the Kingdom is seeking to become more self-reliant when it comes to designing military strategies and undertaking operations. Currently, in order to carry out its operations in Yemen, the country is still heavily supported by both British and American advisors and targeted intelligence, and relies on American air-to-air refuelling for its air force.

While the Kingdom’s desire to become more autonomous and pursue military actions independently from their Western allies is understandable, it may well have detrimental consequences for civilians in areas of Saudi Arabian military engagement: cases of their intelligence failures leading to civilian casualties are increasingly well documented.

In addition, this drive to become more self-sufficient when undertaking military interventions is also likely to have implications closer to home. A commonly heard argument is that by engaging with Saudi Arabia through arms sales, the UK is able to exert leverage and influence over Saudi foreign policy (something the Policy Institute at King’s is seeking to assess and quantify). But as Saudi Arabia’s need for UK-manufactured weaponry diminishes, so too does the supposed opportunity to exercise soft power (if indeed the leverage existed in the first place).

The MoD overhaul, then, signals three things: first, it is the latest sign that the Kingdom is attempting to acquire the skills and resources needed to successfully pursue its foreign policy ambitions. Second, it is the latest manifestation of MBS’s attempts to further consolidate his power. And third, placing the overhaul in a geopolitical context, it provides a means by which MBS can try to demonstrate to Saudia Arabia’s western allies that he is attempting to bring positive change to his country – a message he will be keen to reiterate while visiting the UK and the US this week.

However, for some of those on the receiving end of his decision-making, such as the 20.7 million Yemeni civilians in need of some form of humanitarian assistance or protection largely as a result of the war, these messages offer anything but solace.


Armida van Rij is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute.

This blog is the first of two leading up to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the UK on 7 March. The Policy Institute at King’s is currently undertaking a study seeking to understand the extent to which the UK’s strategic objectives have been met through its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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