Why they canít fight
Obed Pasha
April 29, 2015

Saudi Arabia is currently facing the most significant political crisis of its history since the 1973 oil embargo. The kingdom feels besieged by a pro-Iran Shia government in Iraq, a belligerent Bashar al-Assad in Syra, and the Houthis gaining ground in Yemen.

With a sizeable Shia minority inhabiting its eastern provinces and the recent uprising in Bahrain, this couldnít have happened at a worse time Ė with the United States pulling its forces out of the region.

The Saudis are trying to appear strong as a regional military power by using force instead of political dialogue to manage the Houthi challenge. The kingdom is investing a whopping $80 billion for its defence per year, which makes it the third largest spender in the world following the US and China.

To put things in perspective, Pakistan spends $5.7 billion per year for its defence needs. The Saudi army stands at an impressive 250,000 personnel, who are actively trained by the United States Military Training Mission. The Houthis, on the other hand, are no match for the Saudi forces on paper. Although they are accused of receiving weapon, money, and training support from Iran, the Houthi forces are still largely informal and tribal. The question then arises, why does Saudi Arabia find itself incapable of taking care of the Houthi problem on its own? Why does it seek military support from countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey?

To answer this question, we first need to understand the governance problem of states like Saudi Arabia that are formed through tribal alliances and conquests. To put it simply, these states are created when a few tribes sharing a common heritage forge an alliance under a charismatic leader to either defend themselves from an aggressor or conquer new terrains. Once successful, the chief of the dominant tribe assumes the role of the head of the state or the tribal confederation. While it is relatively easy to maintain unity among the tribes during wars, it takes complex state-craft to keep them cohesive under a common ruler for longer time periods.

In most cases, this unity is achieved through unsustainable means such as inter-marriages, resource sharing, and the use of force. The Abbasid caliphate came up with a solution by conscripting slaves as soldiers and state administrators, a practice that continued until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Since the slaves had no tribal allegiance, their only source of socio-economic progress was through demonstrating loyalty towards the caliph. Although this helped create an exceptionally loyal state apparatus, tribal factions continued to be strong within the population and challenged the state unity.

A more effective solution to achieve national unity was invented by the Chinese and mastered by the Europeans. This method is the art of creating state institutions. Effective state institutions are based on principles such as an open non-discriminate opportunity for all citizens, merit-based entry and promotions, and impersonal allegiance to the state. Functionaries of such an establishment understand that their professional advancement is a function of personal merit and loyalty toward the institution rather than a result of collective bargaining through their tribes or family connections.

The Saudi military, although strong in numbers and resources, has failed to establish such principles of institution development within its armed forces. First, the Shia minority are excluded from military service. Second, instead of a professional force loyal to the state, internal distrust within the Saudi royal family has led to the creation of a weak personalised force.

The main branch of the Saudi army is patronised by the Sudairi faction of the Saudi family, while the 75,000 strong Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) served as a private militia for the deceased king Abdullah since the 1960s. While members of the royal family or their supporting tribes are recruited as officers on an ad-hoc basis in the SANG, the current military operations are actively headed by Prince Muhammad bin Salman who is in his early 30s, instead of a professional institutional chief.

The results of these patronising institutional manipulations are evident. The Saudi royal house is finding it hard to trust its own army officers, even with Salman bin Abdulaziz of the Sudairi faction as the king. In contrast, the armies of countries like Eqypt, Turkey, and Pakistan are built upon European institutional practices, and thus disunity within their ranks is rare.

While the Saudis are anxious about the loyalty of their soldiers belonging to the ancient Yemeni tribes, the Pakhtun and Baloch soldiers of Pakistan army are fighting with the same amount of zeal (if not more) as their brethren from Punjab or Sindh against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Baloch Liberation Army.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA.

Email: obedpasha@yahoo.com

Published in The News