Military & Aerospace

Saudi Arabia's Threat Perception
Star Rating Loader Please wait...

The discovery of oil in 1938, in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia came just six years after the formation of the state. Post World War II, Saudi Arabia assumed great strategic significance as European countries required cheaper sources of oil for rebuilding their shattered infrastructure and economy. In fact, it was the kingdom’s importance as an oil producer that guaranteed its protection during the 1991 Gulf War. After the war, Saudi Arabia’s standing in the world oil market increased because it was the only major oil producing country that had significant excess capacity of crude oil production and thereby a strong influence on international oil supplies and prices. Saudi Arabia contains 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which is the largest in the world.

Its oil reserves constitute more than one-fourth of the estimated global reserves. It is the also the largest exporter of oil and, therefore, plays a leading role in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Saudi Arabia maintains a crude oil production capability of around 10 million barrels a day (bbl/d) and claims that it is capable of increasing it up to 15 million bbl/d. It is the key oil supplier to US (approximately 18 per cent of US oil imports); China, Japan, South Korea (40 per cent of Saudi oil exports); and Jordan (50 per cent of Jordan’s oil imports). Although, Saudi Arabia has around 80 oil and gas fields, more than 50 per cent of its oil reserves are contained in eight fields, which include Ghawar (world’s largest oil field) and Safaniya (world’s largest offshore oil field). Ghawar accounts for about half of Saudi Arabia’s total production capability. Saudi Arabia also produces oil (more than 0.6 million bbl/day in 2003) in the Saudi-Kuwaiti neutral zone and jointly with Bahrain in the Abu Safah offshore oilfield (nearly 0.15 million bbl/day in 2003). Saudi Arabia donates all the income generated from this oil field to Bahrain.

The country has a direct geographical interface with some of the most volatile countries in the Middle East like Iraq ; and the energy rich but insecure smaller sheikhdoms  located on the Persian Gulf coast, with whom its security is inextricably linked.

Most of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports are through the Persian Gulf. The main processing facility near the Persian Gulf is located at Abqaiq, which handles nearly two-thirds of the country’s oil output. The primary oil export terminals on the Persian Gulf coast are located at Ras Tanura and Ras al Juaymah. For oil exports through the Red Sea, Yanbu serves as the main terminal. Currently, the major oil pipeline that Saudi Arabia operates is the east-west crude oil pipeline (petroline, operated by Saudi Aramco) for exports to European markets via the Red Sea. This pipeline runs from Abqaiq in the east to Yanbu in the west. A great deal of emphasis was laid in enhancing the capacity of this pipeline after the Gulf War (1991) as it provided a secure alternative for exports through the Persian Gulf.

There is another pipeline i.e. Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline) terminating in Lebanon (Az Zahrani on the Mediterranean Sea), which has been mothballed since 1970, owing to the Lebanese civil war. The Iraqi pipeline, which originates from the southern Iraqi border town of Az Zubayr to Saudi export terminals on the Red Sea, was closed indefinitely following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Saudi authorities are also planning to construct an oil pipeline from Hadramaut in Yemen to the Arabian Sea.

Saudi Arabia’s approximately 225 trillion cubic feet (tcf) proven gas reserves are the fourth highest in the world after Russia, Iran and Qatar. Most of the gas reserves coexist with oil fields located at Ghawar, Safaniya and Zuluf. Some experts are of the view that only 15 per cent of the Saudi Arabia has been adequately explored for gas, and the Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter) may itself contain reserves to the tune of 300 tcf. The Saudi Government is laying a great deal of accent on the development of the natural gas industry to supplant oil as a source of energy for generation of electricity and running of water desalination plants.Saudi Arabia is bounded by seven countries (Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Yemen) and three water bodies i.e. the Persian Gulf in the east, and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba in the west. With a total area of 1,960,582 sq km (approximately 62 per cent of the size of India), it covers 80 per cent of the Arabian Peninsula. It extends for 1,950 km from northwest to southeast and about 1,240 km from southwest to northeast. It has a coastline of 2,640 km of which more than 1,800 km lie on the Red Sea Coast.

The country has a direct geographical interface with some of the most volatile countries in the Middle East like Iraq with which it shares a 814 km land boundary; and the energy rich but insecure smaller sheikhdoms (GCC countries) located on the Persian Gulf coast, with whom its security is inextricably linked. It shares a 222 km land boundary with Kuwait, 672 km with Oman, 60 km with Qatar, and 457 km with the UAE. Its relations with Jordan with which it shares a 744 km land boundary is important due to the latter’s geographical interface with Israel. It also shares a 1,458 km border with Yemen, which during the Cold War Era was under the grip of a leftist insurgency.

The stability of Saudi Arabia, is crucial for the stability of the entire Middle Eastern region and for global energy security.

It has a great deal of strategic interface with Israel and Egypt with whom it is separated by the narrow Gulf of Aqaba. The vitality of the Persian Gulf, for its oil exports and consequently its economic well-being, renders it an important strategic interlocutor of Iran. The stability of Saudi Arabia, therefore, is crucial for the stability of the entire Middle Eastern region and for global energy security. The other factors that enhance its strategic importance are:

  • It contains the two holiest cities of Islam i.e. Mecca and Medina, which attract Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. It underwrites the Haj and finances other Arab initiatives. Consequently, it exercises a great deal of influence on most of the Muslim countries.
  • It has not only been a regional leader traditionally but also is a key member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
  • Its status as a long time ally of the US lends added significance to its regional status.
  • Its extensive coastlines on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea provide it great leverage on shipping (special crude oil) through Persian Gulf and Suez Canal.
  • Being the repository of the largest oil reserves and fourth largest gas reserves in the world, it is in a position to influence global oil prices, the influence which it has exercised in the past.
  • Saudi Arabia has also been making extensive business investments in the US and other western countries, which gives it an additional economic leverage in conduct of international relations.
  • Given Saudi Arabia’s economic and religious clout, its attitude to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is the key determinant to the success of the ongoing Global War against Terrorism.

Threat Perpection

During its infancy years, Saudi Arabia’s main security concerns were protection of the king and the royal family, safety of holy places and the defence of its territory. The discovery of oil, and consequently its overwhelming economic dependence on oil exports, added new security dimensions including high stakes in maritime security. In the Persian Gulf, since a majority of its oil exports are through that waterway, a disruption can prove pernicious for the Saudi economy. During the Iran-Iraq War, the maritime situation in the Persian Gulf had become alarming for Saudi Arabia.

As Iraqi oil exports had been considerably dislocated due to the war, Saudi Arabia partially fed the Iraqi oil needs from the oil fields located in the Saudi-Iraqi neutral zone.

Saudi Arabia has regarded both Iraq and Iran as perennial threats. Despite Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi military machine had remained formidable. The Baathist Party regime of Saddam Hussein, ideologically and fundamentally, was opposed to all the sheikhdoms in the region. The Islamic revolution in Iran and its intended export disconcerted Saudi Arabia. The radicalisation of Shias was not only confined to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province where they are mainly concentrated, but the ‘80s also witnessed attempts by Iranian pilgrims to use the Haj platform for political demonstrations.

In the ‘80s, the Iranians numbering more than 1,50,000 constituted the largest segment of the pilgrims. In 1987, efforts by Saudi security forces to suppress a demonstration in front of Mecca’s Grand Mosque led to the death of more than 400 pilgrims, two-thirds of whom were Iranians. Even though Saddam has fallen and Iran has more pressing international concerns, the ideological, political and military threats from these countries may reinvent, given the dynamics of geo-politics. It is because of the dynamics of geo-politics and its interface with geo-strategy that Saudi Arabia has oscillated between Iraq and Iran, in lending support to one or the other at different junctures. During the Iran-Iraq War, although Riyadh had declared its neutrality, it provided the latter US $ 25 million assistance as low interest rate loans and grants. As Iraqi oil exports had been considerably dislocated due to the war, Saudi Arabia partially fed the Iraqi oil needs from the oil fields located in the Saudi–Iraqi neutral zone. It also assisted in the construction of a pipeline to transport Iraqi oil through Saudi territory.

While Saudi Arabia forms the core of Muslim religious sentiments, there are also pulls exercised by the forces of modernisation, which have been unleashed primarily by its oil wealth. The Saudi authorities, therefore, may have to perpetually grapple with traditionalists and fundamentalists. Such elements even though contained, continue to loom large in Saudi Arabia’s security perceptions. These elements have been questioning the legitimacy of the Al Saud ruling dynasty. The threat posed by the traditionalists has had serious manifestation in 1979, when at least 500 dissidents invaded and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Saudi Arabia’s security is intertwined with the security of other Sheikhdoms that dot the southern part of the Persian Gulf.

The leader of the dissidents, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba, a Sunni, was from one of the influential families of Najd. His justification for the siege of the Mosque was that the Al Saud had lost its legitimacy to rule because of corrupt, wayward and western ways. Eventually, the military and the National Guard had to be called in to salvage the Grand Mosque from the dissidents. Two months after this incident, there were Shia riots in Al Qatif in Eastern Province. Many of the rioters bore posters with Khomeini’s picture. The riots, a fall out of the radicalisation of the Shias had serious economic overtones as the Eastern Province, which is home to the majority of the Shia population, contains a dense network of oil and gas pipelines.

The main oil company, Aramco had involved or employed a large number of Shias in its oil set up in the Eastern Province as it afforded indirect security due to the economic stakes of the local population. The Saudi authorities have persisted with this policy consequent to the takeover of the Aramco oil company in 1988.

Saudi Arabia’s security is intertwined with the security of other Sheikhdoms that dot the southern part of the Persian Gulf. The upstaging of any of the ruling families in these smaller states may have a cascading effect, which could finally threaten the Saudi ruling dispensation. Moreover, the oil industry and economic links between these countries that together form the GCC is strong and extensive. The physical violation of the territory of these countries cannot take place without impacting on the territorial integrity of one or more of the other states. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait demonstrated the security symbiosis between Saudi Arabia and the smaller coastal states.

Following the invasion, nearly 4,00,000 Kuwaitis including the Royal Family had fled and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. Saudi territory too was violated by the Iraqi Army in the 1991 Gulf War and eventually subsumed all the GCC countries. Saudi Arabia is, therefore, the pivot upon which the security of the GCC countries swivels.

That Saudi Arabia has not been able to ideologically, financially and militarily de-fang the terrorist groups is evident from the vicious killings of westerners engaged in various pursuits.

Until Iraq militarily threatened Saudi Arabia on its northeastern border after the occupation of Kuwait, the country had experienced very few direct threats to its territory. The only overtly hostile actions were from Yemen based Egyptian air and naval units in 1963; the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) forces that attacked Saudi border posts in 1969 and 1973; and Iranian attacks on shipping in the 1980s. During the Cold War, Saudi security concerns were cantered on communist influence in nearby countries like Ethiopia and PDRY (erstwhile South Yemen), which gave the Soviet Union access to naval facilities in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia interpreted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as a means of their establishing a staging area for future operations in the Persian Gulf.

The Iran-Iraq War, which resulted in the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, compelled Saudi Arabia to re-appraise its security priorities. Consequently the kingdom realised that the most sensitive and pressing vulnerabilities were its vast geographic expanse, lengthy coastlines, and small and scattered population. These presented formidable problems for defence. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth made it a tempting target. If Saudi Arabia were to go overboard in its espousal of the Palestinian cause or in exercise of its influential role with the OIC, OPEC or GCC, it may usher in strategic responses from quarters that have vital security and energy stakes in the region. It is quite possible that this factor may have lent its weight in deciding upon ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ by the US and its allies, as Iraq with its oil wealth has the strategic potential to counterbalance Saudi Arabia.

That Saudi Arabia has not been able to ideologically, financially and militarily de-fang the terrorist groups is evident from the vicious killings of westerners engaged in various pursuits. Of the 54,000 workforce of Aramco, approximately 3,000 are westerners. On 1 May 2004, six westerners were killed at the ABB Lummus in Yanbu. The Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for this attack. Subsequently, nearly 100 employees working on a joint Sabic / Exxon-Mobil refinery project left the country. The Yanbu attack was followed by another incident in last week of May 2004 in which 22 people (mainly foreigners) were killed in a residential compound in Khobar. During the first two weeks of June 2004, several westerners were murdered including one who was kidnapped and beheaded.

No personal rivalry or fissures within the royal family have come to the surface so far, however, schisms owing to policy differences over issues such as the: closeness of ties with the US, or the extent and role of the religious establishment, may not be completely discounted. In the Saudi Royal Family, as is the case with many other monarchies in the region, intrigues are not without precedence. In March 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew. Curiously, this incident had followed the Arab-Israel War, which had triggered a three-fold rise in world oil prices due to Saudi led Arab boycott of countries supporting Israel.

Saudi Arabia strongly maintains that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism cannot be effectively curbed unless the Palestinian issue that provides the ideological ammunition to these activities is resolved.

Saudi Arabia has resolved various contentious boundary issues with most of its neighbours. In 1975, a demarcation agreement was hammered between Abu Dhabi, Oman and Saudi Arabia with regard to the Al Buryami Oasis, where the frontiers of these three states meet. The neutral zone that it shared with Iraq (7,000 sq km) and Kuwait (5,790 sq km) was equitably divided with each of these countries in 1981 and 1965 respectively. These neutral zones were created consequent to agreements between Saudi rulers and British officials in 1922 (representing Iraqi and Kuwaiti interests), with the purpose of safeguarding the water rights of the Bedouins of these countries. Saudi Arabia’s relations with Yemen have been troubled in modern times. The border has witnessed periodic tribal clashes and boundary disputes.

The reunification of divided Yemen in May 1990, was a disconcerting development for Saudi Arabia as it felt that the more populous combined Yemen with leftist leanings might impact on the Islamic conservative dispensation of Saudi Arabia. Relations between the two countries worsened when Yemen came out in support of Iraq after the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia had repatriated more than one million Yemeni workers. Long stretches of uninhabited desert, known as the ‘Empty Quarter’ or Rub al Khali form the disputed territory between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The two countries, however, signed a border agreement in June 2000, which delineated the sections of their common border, which had been in dispute since 1930. Nomadic groups on the border region with Yemen, however, continue to resist the boundary demarcation. Since the boundary demarcation with UAE has not been made public, the exact boundary alignment is still approximate. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are yet to demarcate their long-contested maritime boundary with Iran despite prolonged negotiations.

Click to buy

In addition to the economic impact of the 1991 Gulf War, which cost the regional countries US $ 676 billion and US $ 60 billion to Saudi Arabia alone, there were also far reaching sociological and political manifestations. There emerged a sizeable constituency within the kingdom that openly began to question the country’s political and religious framework, which they considered regressive. It exposed the inherent inadequacies of the government in ensuring the sovereignty of the country, and security of its peoples, without western assistance. Moreover, it caused a polarisation between the traditionalists and modernists in a manner that was never so pronounced.

Although Saudi Arabia does not have any common border with Israel, it could well be engulfed by a war, which may involve Israel, especially over the Palestinian issue. Such threats have reared up in the past. Saudi Arabia strongly maintains that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism cannot be effectively curbed unless the Palestinian issue that provides the ideological ammunition to these activities is resolved.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

RSN Singh

is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW and author of books Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and The Military Factor in Pakistan. His latest book is The Unmaking of Nepal.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

One thought on “Saudi Arabia’s Threat Perception

More Comments Loader Loading Comments