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date: 13 June 2024

Saudi Arabia: The Role of the Military in Politicslocked

Saudi Arabia: The Role of the Military in Politicslocked

  • Ayman Al-YassiniAyman Al-YassiniCanadian Race Relations Foundation


More than any other time in Saudi Arabia’s history, Saudi nationalism and the role of the military in society are becoming a major source of regime legitimacy. Military expenditure is exceeding allocations to other ministries, and Saudi Arabia surpassed its past spending on the military to become one of the world’s main importers of arms, particularly from the United States.

The process of increased militarization corresponded with the concentration of power in the hands of Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammad Ibn Salman. It ushered in a period of drastic restructuring of military and security agencies to consolidate his rule. On the regional level, Saudi Arabia increasingly projects itself as the leader of the Arab world, including the Gulf region, in fighting terrorism and in direct challenge to Iran’s positioning to assume regional dominance. However, the surge in spending on equipment and training has never translated into an effective fighting force that would enable the kingdom to protect itself internally or engage in military ventures abroad. Consequently, and in the process of consolidating his power, Ibn Salman initiated a number of changes. He secured the support of the younger generation of royals but sidelined the more senior members of the royal family. He pacified the religious establishment and restructured the military leadership. He became deputy Prime Minister, Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and Minister of Defense. Ibn Salman’s role as Minister of Defense enabled him to assert full control over the military and national security agencies. Throughout this process, Wahabbism, tribalism, economic rewards, and the steady flow of advanced armaments ensured the military’s continued allegiance to al-Saud and Ibn Salman’s vision for Saudi Arabia.

Ibn Salman introduced a top-down plan (Vision 2030) intended to create employment, to diversify the economy, and to reshape the social and cultural life of the kingdom. The kingdom adopted a more aggressive foreign policy, and the military became an important instrument of this policy. In departure from long-standing practices, the kingdom deployed air and ground forces outside its borders. It joined the U.S.-led air raids against the Islamic State (ISIS), and air and ground forces have been deployed in the campaign in Yemen. It also resorted to traditional means of influencing regional politics through financing local allies and the promotion of the kingdom as the guardian of Sunni Islam.

The rentier base of the Saudi economy enabled the kingdom to spend billions of dollars to purchase an impressive array of military hardware from the United States, Britain, France, and other countries, making Saudi Arabia among the top nations in the world in terms of spending for the military. However, the military’s performance on the battlefield, such as in the Yemen war, have shown that heavy spending is not translated into an effective fighting force that would protect the kingdom internally or externally. Restructuring the military organization did not produce a modern fighting force. Tribalism, lack of transparency, and discrepancy between ambition and reality continue to prevail. It remains to be seen if Ibn Salman’s national modernization process, including a push to build a domestic armament industry and to reform the military establishment as a whole, will succeed. The challenge for Saudi Arabia today is how to balance its development initiatives with maintaining the traditional bases of regime legitimacy.


  • History and Politics
  • Political Institutions
  • World Politics

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