Princes in Military Service


2015-02-01 /

The Saudis are extremely secretive about their royal affairs, as they are about the defense establishment, and it is therefore difficult to determine exactly how many princes are in military service. The presence of more than 25 uniformed princes in the Saudi Arabian armed forces [as of 1985] raises a number of interesting questions concerning the role played by these royal offspring. How these princes affect the stability of the military as well as their influence on its efficiency and credibility as a fighting force are particularly important considerations. Is royal military service the result, to a greater or lesser degree, of an orchestrated plan by the royal family to maintain a diversified presence in and check on the military? Why would a prince, who supposedly has everything he could possibly want, join the military? How encumbered by military discipline is he? What is the effect on unit morale and discipline when a prince joins the outfit? Do these princes have much influence over military decision making? If so, how far does their authority extend into policy making? Do they "rough it" or are they a privileged lot relatively exempt from undergoing hardship?


It is inevitable that, with the Saudi royal family estimated to number more than 5,000 male members, some of these princes should find their way into the armed forces. It is easy to understand the role played by the senior princes; they are the ministers and senior functionaries at the very top of the various military organizations, ensuring political control and responsiveness. More difficult to understand is the place and purpose of junior princes in military service, those in uniform and starting, at least, as junior officers. Since the loyalty of its armed forces has a clear impact on the stability of al-Saud rule, an understanding of the "royal connection" with military service is useful in judging how the royal family feels about and deals with its military establishment, and how non-royal officers view their al-Saud comrades in arms.
The al-Saud monarchy is highly conscious of the utility of a modern military force and has spent billions in an effort to create one. A well-trained and superbly-equipped military force is not only vital to the defense of the frontiers, resources and ruling regime in Saudi Arabia against outside aggression but is also useful as a symbol of Saudi nationalism-- fostering popular attachment to the al-Saud dynasty, as distinguished from older focal points of loyalty and motivation such as Arab lineage or Islamic faith. However, the al-Saud dynasts have seen Muslim monarchies fall to coups d'etat mounted by military officers. The history of the region offers many examples, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Libya, in which the armed forces of the country, strengthened and modernized, have overthrown the monarchial regime they were established to defend. Thus the survival of the regime requires that civilians -- read members of the ruling family -- maintain tight control over the military establishment. The regime has put this familiar principle into practice by ensuring that family members sit firmly at the apex of every military or quasi-military command pyramid--whether in the Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA), the National Guard, or the Ministry of the Interior.
Given these same concerns it is also not surprising that, until the 1970s, the rulers of Saudi Arabia did very little to improve their armed forces either quantitatively or qualitatively. They were content to allow the establishment of only a modest Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA) and maintained only an antiquated National Guard. But this view began to change in the early sixties. In the face of what they viewed as Nassirite aggression from the Yemen, the al-Saud were forced to recognize the vulnerability of their own regime to outside military threats. They began a modest attempt to improve their defense forces and national guard which (with the help of new oil wealth) became a major effort to expand and upgrade all elements of the military. Vast building projects and later the acquisition of sophisticated weaponry have been a major preoccupation from 1974 to the present.
Although there was limited Saudi participation in fighting in the Golan in 1973, it was the war between Iran and Iraq which forced the Saudis to come to terms with some of the realities of modern combat. All the new equipment in the world is of little value without a cohesive officer corps capable of making quick, sophisticated use of their weaponry. Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of military organization best suited, and hence more likely, to seek power in its own right. The al-Saud accepted the need to develop the command, control, coordination and staffing mechanisms needed to operate a modern military force. Peace Shield, the Saudis' multi-billion dollar C3 program for air defense link the air defense command, RSAF and Royal Saudi Navy, but this program did not begin to tackle the question of combined arms operational control. It addresses what unquestionably is the greatest current threat perceived by the Saudi regime, that of an air attack against their petro- industrial - desalination infrastructure in the eastern province. However, implementation even of this program was slow and a system which integrated all the military services, let alone MODA and the SANG, was a long time coming. Further steps facilitating military coordination between services and its transfer out of the hands of princely authority and into those of a military general staff does not appear to be in the cards.
Wary that a strong, cohesive military might pose a threat to their rule, the al-Saud treat every branch of the military as a separate entity with its own equipment, garrison and distinct lines of command and control. Thus the Land Force, Navy and Air Force are hampered by incompatibility of communications equipment, spare parts and ammunition and, more importantly, mutual distrust sometimes bordering on disdain. The National Guard and Ministry of Defense and Aviation have but limited contact with each other, little chance at interoperability, and no provisions for joint operations except within the context of the broadest mission statements. Army forces are all garrisoned well away from the capital. The only ground forces near Riyadh belong to the National Guard. Riyadh Airbase had no fighter squadrons. It is a fair assessment to say that the Saudi regime has tried to achieve a delicate balance, having the military capability and efficiency to meet potential external threats, but not so much as to endanger the royal family's own domestic position.



But are the princes in the military an element of the same control process? Does their presence have an impact on the regime's security, on the efficiency of the armed forces, on military morale? Do senior princes with ministerial positions carefully place their juniors in key, uniformed jobs? The complexity of al-Saud family politics makes highly speculative any attempt to infer the organization and control that would be necessary to place officers into key positions in the military suitable for the maintenance of a watchdog role. Moreover, far from being a monolithic organization, the al-Saud family is a sprawling entity with an array of discrete and sometimes competitive interests; cohesion and internal control are a major preoccupation of the senior-most princes.
Unquestionably, there are reasons why princes might play a role in the military by design. Given an abundance of well-educated, loyal princes, a logical move for the al-Saud to make would be to encourage some of these young men to join the military. Such men, imbued as they are with a vested self- interest in the regime, could serve as its eyes and ears and also exert an influence on the rest of the officer corps. Clearly the top echelon of the sag is composed entirely of princes. In 1985 King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz was the supreme commander of the armed forces. He exercised control over the regular military establishment through his full brother, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Minister of Defense and Aviation. While the King was also nominal chief of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, his half brother, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, was its commander. The king would probably have had great difficulty in exerting arbitrary authority over Abdullah, especially in matters affecting the SANG. Decisions are often made with senior family agreement. Since survival of the regime is the al-Saud family's first imperative, there is little visible sign of disharmony. As crown prince and thus Fahd's putative successor, stability of the regime was also very much in Abdullah's personal interest.
As of 1985 many seemingly influential positions below the civilian political direction level were held by princes. Until the early 1980s, the director of air operations for the RSAF was a prince. Two of the fighter base commanders were princes. (A third was commanded by an al-Sudairy, one of the families long associated with the royal family. A number of the military police leadership positions in the army are held by princes as well. The deputy commander of the Navy was a prince. In the SANG, the most politicized of the services, not only the top two positions were held by civilians but also civilian princes in key roles as the SANG commanders in the western province, Abdullah's son Khalid, the eastern province, Mishari bin Saud, as well as others in more removed financial and administrative positions. Most princes in uniform were officers in the RSAF and the Royal Saudi Land Forces, or RSLF, the two elements of the armed forces most capable of mounting a threat to al-Saud rule. Princes are more common in the officer ranks of these two organizations than in all the others (Navy, SANG, MOI quasi-military forces). If princes are in the armed forces to fulfill an oversight role, they are certainly in the right branches of the service.
But if there are these indications supporting the concept of directed royal placement in the military, there is much circumstantial evidence also tending to support the view that the presence and placement of princes in the military reflects individual inclination and ambition as much as -- or more than -- the implementation of a putative protection plan elaborated by the al-Saud. Princes freely refuse assignments and appear to be free to leave the service if they desire to do so. The al-Saud leadership appears to be cautious about pushing princes too far too fast as well. Promotions into the general officer ranks were only made in the 1980s. Breaking the promotion ice was Col. Fahd b. Abdullah, former RSAF director of air operations, who became Saudi Arabia's first prince to be promoted through the officer ranks to brigadier general in January 1984. This promotion was later followed by the promotions of Col. Faysal b. Muhammed, SALF aviation chief, and Khalid b. Sultan, deputy commander of the RSADF.
There is also a question as to whether royal control is really furthered through a princely presence. Abdul Aziz fathered 45 acknowledged sons from at least 22 wives. The survivors among these sons, together with their own offspring, have, over the years, established informal blocks composed generally of groupings of full-brothers but also including half-brother allies. To these must be added the sons of Abdul Aziz's relatives whose families constitute the al-Saud cadet branches, and the children of long time associates now married into the greater family. These latter groups are in an ambiguous, ambivalent position: while many al-Shaykh and al-Sudairy daughters continue to marry young scions of the al-Saud, male members of these families often exhibit -- and sometimes are reminded by the al-Saud -- that their lineage is distant. This diversification of family groupings, with their concomitant loyalties, complicates the royal presence in the armed forces and reflects among the uniformed princes a diversity of roles, interests and aspirations. This diversity imposes limits to the degree of control available to the senior princes through the presence of princes in the military. It is similarly flawed even as an information/ intelligence conduit. Officer princes are often able to avoid subjugating their personal goals and ambitions to the desires of their more removed uncles and cousins.
Control among the senior princes is complicated enough. It is even more so among the juniors. The princes all appear to be loyal to the regime. While there may be a variety of different self-interests among them, all the princes are dependent on the monarchy for their station in life. Complications begin when examining the makeup of the royal family - while many bear the title of prince, all princes are not equal. This lack of equality often brings with it a wide range of priorities in life. Some princes, mostly from the more distant branches of the family, are less concerned with power politics and more with just plain upward mobility. Unable to aspire to the highest offices in the land, these princes hold a wide variety of other aspirations and ambitions. First priority for these men can be the establishment of new business relationships, the securing of a contract, the purchase of new equipment or the opening of a new branch office, just as much as the securing of a military promotion or new, better position. The regime appears to be fairly tolerant of this attitude.
In sum, at the very top of the chain of command -- the ministerial level -- princes have been given absolute control over the armed forces and operate those forces very much with the survival of Saudi Arabia and the regime in mind. Going farther down the chain of command, there are a number of princes whose reason for being there is much more obscure. However, if they are not spending a great deal of time looking after the interests of the regime, they at least give outsiders the impression that they might be. Thus the regime probably profits more from the perception than the reality, and more so among the expatriate community than insiders. Although some princes are in positions from where they can oversee the goings on in the military, there are enough key positions filled by commoners and, similarly, enough positions filled by princes where there is relatively little control or oversight to cast doubt that the al-Saud make anything more than a half-hearted attempt to position their trusted sons in key jobs. Selections appear to be based on the princes' individual desires, and the availability of positions at a given time.
If princes are not in the military to act primarily as representatives of the regime, why then are they there? First of all, there are not many jobs that a prince will accept. While some of the older, more retiring princes are content with the world of business and finance, this is not the case with many of the younger, western educated and more worldly members of the family. For some, there is simply no motivation to spend long hours tending after family business interests. For others, dealing directly in business is demeaning. For still others, there is a yearning for bigger, more important tasks.
Throughout history, military service has been an acceptable occupation for members of the nobility. Defense of the faith and the nation, honor and glory, pride and all the other manifestations of military service permit princes to join the armed forces along with their commoner countrymen. While the preponderance of princes are in the RSLF and RSAF, there are a number of reasons why this should be the case. In a country with little in the way of exciting diversions, flying an F-15 or an F-5 with the potential of engaging in aerial combat is very stimulating. Virtually all the princes in the RSAF are pilots. Two fighter bases were commanded by princes [in the mid-1980s]. Their access to the best education, their leadership advantages and the basic ability of many of the RSAF princes all make their appointment to leadership positions a logical outcome of service.
Service in the land forces grows out of a long tradition of ground combat. The view among the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia is that service in the "ground gaining arms" of the military, whether for defense, or in older times for the honor it was possible to acquire in the once perennial raiding, is the most honored form of military service. If many of the more educated, cosmopolitan Saudis, princes and commoners, are finding the other branches of service -- air force, navy and air defense -- equally attractive, family and social pressure still force many of those who do enter military service to enter the land forces and sang. Reluctant as some may be to join, service in the SANG can amount to a family obligation for favors given or expected in the future. At the same time, SANG officers automatically incurred a debt of loyalty to crown prince Abdullah. This requirement probably kept princes whose family loyalties were to other sectors of the family, out of the SANG.
Joining the armed forces carries with it a number of obvious benefits. A number of princes used military service to establish their credentials as capable leaders and have gone on to other careers in government. Others seem inclined to go from the military into business having made lucrative contacts or begun their fortunes in other ways while in the service. Others stay in the service balancing military duty with private enterprise. However, one fact stands out above all the rest -- military service is no bar to getting wealthy. Many officers and enlisted men have amassed great fortunes through the medium of military service. Until the early 1980s, MODA was a seemingly inexhaustible source of contracts, projects, procurement actions and business opportunities. With no enforcement of conflict of interest laws against princes, members of the military, together with their civilian relatives, tapped this vast reserve of funds. For princes, the inside track provided by their family connection has made it possible for them to outshine all their non-royal colleagues. The higher in rank, the bigger the opportunities.
Despite al-Saud preoccupation with it, money is not the only attraction found in military service. While some princes devote themselves almost exclusively to self enrichment, and others, like the Aaud al Kabir, content themselves with money as a handsome sideline to their military careers, others have higher aspirations. The military can be a stepping stone to bigger things. It is clearly not a disadvantage.



Among the most obvious examples were that of Bandar bin Sultan, another son of the minister of defense .Bandar was doubtless a businessman when he was in uniform. For that matter, he was still involved in businesses he had when F-15 commander in Dhahran. However, he was also a very ambitious man who aspires to doing great things for his country. Bandar was quick to seize the opportunity offered by the arms sale debate in the US In the early 80's. He quickly became an articulate spokesman for his country's military policy needs. His family credentials and political acumen enabled him to gain access to the king's ear and his personal charm and ability earned him the king's attention. He soon became ambassador to the United States.
Regardless of their reason for being there, the final key question is: what impact does the royal connection have on the armed forces? Command relationships between the princes and their commoner colleagues are established by Prince Sultan and Prince Abdullah. In the SANG, none of the princes appear to answer to anyone but the Crown Prince or his most senior deputy. However, the SANG was more Abdullah's private domain, and its unique tribal orientation made the place of princes (especially princes related to Abdullah) more secure. In MODA, princes were usually in a position to take orders from commoners. Official policy said they were to be treated according to their rank. But the real relationship is unclear. A prince had direct access to the top, either personally or through his family. The higher the prince, the easier it is for him to get his own way in a dispute. There were not hear, however, many disputes which require royal settlement from above. There were rivalries but not open insubordination. It is probable that any prince who cannot get along in MODA is quietly moved out.
But tight military discipline is not really in the Saudi tradition -- for commoners as well as royalty. Saudi society remains close to the strong Bedouin ethic of fierce personal independence and strong, family/clan oriented loyalty. While not obvious, everyone and everything has its place in the order of importance. Loyalty is first to one's father and then to a lesser degree, to other persons, institutions and pursuits. In the armed forces, this has resulted in the reduction of what are elsewhere strict military regulations into the least restrictive, lowest common denominator. Western concepts of military discipline as applied in the Saudi Arabian armed forces are liberal, and to outsiders often seem patently ineffective. Soldiers on guard duty can be seen without laces in their shoes or out of proper uniform in some other way. Although forbidden by regulations, soldiers and sailors can still be seen leaving their offices at 2:00 pm (day's end) and getting into their taxi cabs to begin a second occupation.
Despite official pronouncements to the contrary, with no equality between princes and officers of equal rank, large disparity in pay and allowances (princes got a royal stipend of around US$120,000 per year Iin 1985, depending on place in the family), and a vast array of prerequisites such as free use of government owned aircraft, homes, etc., It is not surprising that they are relatively isolated from their commoner colleagues within the military. Princes associate very little outside their own circles, but this indeed is the case with families in the rest of Saudi society. However, what this means for the armed forces is that the bonds of comradeship are virtually non-existent. While princes have, through their personal connections, the ability to exert pressure on behalf of their units, influence is the way virtually everything is moved in the Saudi bureaucracy and not much credit is given for doing something which is expected. The presence of a prince in the unit is therefore not necessarily a boon to morale.
There were complaints among commoner officers about the obvious privileges and excessive greed of royal family members. There was also quiet grumbling about excessive advancement. While officers will most generally withhold their comments from foreigners, the fact that a few have been willing to speak is probably indicative of wider, private attitudes in the officer corps. (There was no provision for complaints such as these and therefore, if they are widespread, they are probably voiced only among confidants. There were cases in which officers with outspoken opinions had been moved to attache positions out of the country, been given retirement, or been seconded to non-military, governmental organizations.) Perhaps the evidence of caution of moving princes to the most senior positions indicates some royal family awareness of the potential problems in terms of officer corps morale if their own are pushed too far. The SANG appears to be less affected than MODA and more relaxed about the princely role.
Overall, princes do not appear to help or harm the capability of the armed forces. While it is debatable how much their extra-curricular activities affect morale, their ability to cut through red tape and facilitate matters on behalf of their units should help offset at least any negative feelings. While some may come in for criticism, the proven ability of others has certainly been recognized and leaders are respected by their colleagues and subordinates. However, the financial advantages which once fell to everyone with a little imagination were dwindling fast in the 1980s.
The mere presence of princes in the armed forces provides some degree of stability to the al Saud regime. Regardless of their motives in entering the military, their oversight capability and influence on events in the military must inevitably have some effect on unit personnel. And inevitably, even if links to the senior princes are weak, there must be some feedback on military attitudes from the princely presence. Whether or not a prince improves or detracts from the morale or capability of his unit is more or less dependent on his attitude toward the profession and his personal interests. However, his primary benefit to the regime, whether by design or not, is the royal presence his assignment brings.