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Securing the Kingdom: How the US Military Complex Built Up Its Most Important Ally in the Middle East

The proliferation of threats across the Middle East has forced the US to focus its defense strategy on bolstering the military capabilities of its strongest ally in a region perpetually gutted by turmoil.

by Adam Kerlin
18 June 2015, 5:19am

A Saudi military parade. Photo by Omar Chatriwala/Al Jazeera English via Flickr

On May 14, 2011, temperatures in Saudi Arabia's capital of Riyadh hit a record high of 107 degrees. The blistering heat greeted executives from 21 US defense and security companies as they deplaned into the Middle Eastern desert just months after the Arab Spring spread revolutionary protests and riots across the region. The delegation, led by former US Defense Secretary William Cohen, was one of the largest cohorts of US defense executives to ever visit Riyadh.

Members of the group, representing companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, were given an immersive introduction to the mutually beneficial oil-for-security relationship that has tied the United States to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for more than 70 years. They visited local weapons manufacturers and attended networking events where they were introduced to potential Arab business partners in meetings set up by the US Department of Commerce.

The trip came less than six months after Congress had authorized the largest foreign defense deal in US history—approving $60 billion in foreign military sales intended to modernize and vastly expand the air capacity of Saudi Arabia's armed forces.

The mission of the deal was twofold. By strengthening Saudi Arabia the US military could lessen its physical footprint in a region where terrorist groups use Western troop presence as a recruitment tool. At the same time, the arms deals supporting the Saudi military buildup would be an economic boom back home, where cuts to the Pentagon budget have forced defense companies to look outside the US market—and the security threats emerging across an increasingly fractured Middle East created ideal clients.

In the four years since the large group of defense executives visited Riyadh, the security situation in the Middle East has only worsened. Internal uprisings have destabilized Saudi Arabia's neighbors, creating fertile ground for terrorist groups—many using Western military intervention as their call to jihad—to form in the power vacuums that have followed. A study published by the RAND Corporation for the Defense Department last year found that the number of Salafi jihadist groups worldwide has increased by 58 percent since 2010. The proliferation of these groups has caused the US to continue to focus its Middle East defense strategy on bolstering the security of its strongest ally in a region perpetually gutted by turmoil.

The most visible results of this defense diplomacy can be seen just across Saudi Arabia's southern border, in Yemen, where the Kingdom's armed forces have led a coalition of Gulf countries conducting airstrikes in response to an overthrow of the Yemeni government by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In the strongest flex of its military power since the US withdrew its forces from the Kingdom in 2003, the Saudis have used American-made cluster bombs and F-15 fighter jets in an air campaign that has killed at least 1,400 people and injured thousands more.

The campaign in Yemen is an integral part of Saudi Arabia's new role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, said Nawaf Obaid, a long-time Saudi government security adviser who is currently a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "We've come to the realization that the era of US military presence, combat presence, is slowly coming to an end," he added, noting the gradual drawdown of US ground forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The recent escalation of Saudi Arabian military power is the result of a series of training and advisory missions that the US government has conducted with the Kingdom going back to the 1950s, increasing the size and scope of the Saudi defense apparatus over nearly seven decades.

The most recent program to enhance security cooperation between the two allies was finalized in 2008, after an attempted terrorist attack on a vital Saudi energy facility. On February 24, 2006, two Al Qaeda suicide bombers driving cars belonging to the state-owned Saudi Aramco sped passed barricades securing the world's largest oil processing center in Abqaiq, a gated community in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province. Security forces shot at the cars, igniting the bombs and killing both attackers and two guards. Eight others were injured.

When Abqaiq was attacked the vast facility was largely spared, but the near miss caused the global price of oil to jump. Just three months later, a team of US government officials led by the State Department and including representatives from the CIA, the FBI, and the Department of Energy, were tasked with assessing infrastructure security in the Kingdom. Soon after, the State Department's economic counselor to Saudi Arabia was meeting with senior advisors in the Kingdom's Ministry of Interior, discussing the rapid development of a 35,000-member Facilities Security Force that would be expanded with the help of US military personnel.

Ford Fraker, then the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia charged with overseeing the program's implementation, described it at the timeas "probably the single biggest initiative for the US-Saudi relationship," predicting the military contracts that would come out of the deal could reach the tens of billions of dollars.

The new partnership was initially narrow in focus, with the US asked to evaluate the security of critical oil and energy facilities throughout the Kingdom before training new forces to better protect them. But the Saudis were already looking to expand the relationship beyond critical infrastructure protection, citing border and coastal security as other areas that would benefit from broader US support.

"After the training program was staffed up and operational , the Saudis clearly had a larger desire," Fraker, who is now the president of the Middle East Policy Council, said in an interview with VICE. "They wanted to be able to do a variety of other things under the umbrella of this relationship."

National security laws make the program hard to track, and many of the contracts under the agreement completed as direct commercial sales. These deals take place directly between the Saudi Arabian government and American defense suppliers, with the US government having little recorded involvement.

The sales are, however, tracked by the State Department—and a review of arms and services sold to Saudi Arabia by VICE shows a dra matic increase in direct commercial sales after the US established a relationship with the Interior Ministry in 2008. In the six years prior to that deal, sales to Saudi Arabia totaled $4.84 billion dollars, or just over $800 million each year. Those numbers have more than doubled since then, with US companies selling more than $11.4 billion dollars in military equipment and services directly to Saudi Arabia between 2008 and 2014, an average of $1.9 billion each year.

The program has quickly expanded beyond critical infrastructure, in a move the Saudis hope will help build its defenses against a complicated threat that has emerged along its northern border with Iraq.

"We were deeply engaged in conversations with the Saudis about the security of their borders," Fraker said. "Specifically to tighten up the northern border so people couldn't easily go back and forth."

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With the Pentagon facing budget restrictions, the United States' largest defense companies have looked to increasing terrorist threats across the Middle East to maintain profits. "The international component has us well positioned to achieve our stated goal of expanding sales from international customers to at least 25% of total corporate sales in the next few years," Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson told investors on a quarterly earnings call in January. She added that she had traveled to the Middle East at the end of 2014 in an effort to expand the defense company's international relationships.

"All the partiesI spoke with reaffirmed their unwavering desire to secure the most effective solutions and products essential for national security," Hewson said.

In the last 18 months, the security situation in the Middle East has deteriorated further, as the terrorist group known as the Islamic State rapidly expanded through Syria into Iraq, securing vital cities in the country's northern and western provinces in a rapid expansion that caught the world's attention. In a rare insight into the group's recruitment efforts, coalition forces came across a trove of documents in October of 2007detailing the makeup of the Islamic State of Iraq's fighters. Just over 41 percent of the 595 fighters that listed a nationality in these records were Saudis, and more than 50 of them listed the Kingdom's capital of Riyadh as their hometown.

It's no secret that Saudi citizens make up a significant portion of the enemy they're spending billions of dollars to keep out. Experts link the prevalence of Saudi foreign fighters in Iraq to an austere form of Islam that governs the country's educational and judicial systems. And while efforts have been made to reform religious texts and criminalize leaving the Kingdom to fight abroad, the radical ideology that the Saudi state has long perpetuated may already be lost on the extremist groups that have embraced it.

"From a Saudi perspective, it's gone rogue," says Gregory Gause, an Arabian Peninsula specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Doha. "I don't know if the Saudis said tomorrow we are closing the whole thing down, I don't know if it would have much effect frankly. The Saudis don't control it anymore, that's ISIS and Al Qaeda."

The variety of threats facing the Kingdom from all sides have led the Saudis to see US-led training and advisory programs as having endless opportunities."It's like a consulting firm," said Obaid. "The office of the program manager [run by the US government] is the consultant and the Saudi government is the client. There's so much training going on, so much knowhow being transferred over. It's more than people realize."

In an effort to educate the West about Saudi Arabia's new defense posture, Obaid has spent the last few months giving presentations on a new Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine to Congress and senior military officers in the US and Europe. Obaid, who formerly served as a security advisor to Saudi Arabia's ambassadors to both the US and the United Kingdom, has focused his presentations on the need to drastically increase the size of Saudi Arabia's National Guard, Army, Navy and Air Force—and buy enough equipment to support them.

The expansion comes as Saudi Arabia feels increasingly threatened by America's pending nuclear deal with Iran. The deal would relieve Tehran of extensive Western sanctions that have been weakening its economy. If these sanctions are lifted, the Saudi's believes Iran will have a new source of funding to put towards proxy militia groups they've been backing in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The royal family sees this as an aggressive move that could widely expand Iranian influence in their backyard. But the US is likely to offset these fears from the Gulf with new defense promises to the Kingdom and its allies.

"There are a lot of people in the world depending on Saudi Arabia for a lot of things, especially in today's world. So we don't have a choice," Obaid said of Saudi Arabia's commitment to US weapons and training programs. "Saudis are getting the best training available from the people that are part of the best military in the world. This is going to be going on for a while."

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