Hagel and the GCC: Partnership and a Saudi military sweep

The appointment of the new Saudi military commanders reflects a tribal affiliation and knowledge of key strategic directions of defense

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held the first consultative meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Defense Ministerial in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Defense officials from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman attended the meeting. In attendance were Kuwait’s Premier and Minister of Defense Lt. General Sheikh Khalid Al-Jarrah Al-Sabah; Bahrain's Minister of State for Defense Affairs, Lt. General Doctor, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa; Sultanate of Oman's Minister Responsible for Defense Affairs, Badr bin Saud bin Hareb Al-Busaidi; Qatar's Minister of State for Defense Affairs, Maj. Gen. Hamad bin Ali Al-Attiyah; UAE's Undersecretary of the Ministry of Defense, Mohammed bin Ahmed Al-Bawardi. Immediately after the conference, there was a sweep of the Saudi MOD that saw the whole-sale replacement of senior Saudi military leaders from key branches. Both events appear to be linked together revealing the current nature of the Kingdom’s defense strategy and the relationship with the United States. Let’s review some interesting patterns from that fateful day just shy of a week ago.

First, Hagel argued that “developing the capabilities of GCC countries is one part of the effort to reassure these partners specifically in cyber-security, air and maritime security, and missile defense.” The removal of key Saudi military leaders the same day as the U.S.-GCC defense ministerial illustrates the very arenas that Washington is offering partnership to Riyadh—the Chief of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Staff, the commander of the Saudi Royal Air Force and the commander of the Saudi Royal Navy. These positions are at the heart of what America sees as Saudi defense requirements. Notably missing from “the sweep” of the Saudi Ministry of Defense is the Saudi Royal Army and other services who performed in the Saif Abdullah military exercise and parade a few weeks ago.

The appointment of the new Saudi military commanders reflects a tribal affiliation and knowledge of key strategic directions of defense

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Second, the Saudi monarch appointed Prince Khaled bin Bandar as deputy defense minister and removed Prince Salman bin Sultan, who was just appointed to the position in August 2013. Salman bin Sultan, half-brother of Bandar bin Sultan, seems to have fallen aside simply because of pedigree. On top of that, one cannot avoid the comparison between the removal of Bandar and Salman as Bandar “resigned” two weeks after President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2014 and now Salman’s removal hours after the visit of Hagel. This is not a coincidence. According to an Arab official, there has been “a meeting of the minds” between the United States and Saudi Arabia over the Kingdom’s personnel changes regarding upgrades and strategic and tactical thinking by the Saudi military. His Highness King Abdullah is seeing that his legacy is enshrined in establishing a military establishment capable of absorbing weapons from the United States and having the personnel with the foresight necessary to make a difference in protecting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Third, the appointment of the new Saudi military commanders reflects a tribal affiliation and knowledge of key strategic directions of defense from the Kingdom’s point of view. The new Chief of the General Staff, General Abdurrahman bin Saleh bin Abdullah Al-Bunyan hails from a tribal family between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Significantly the al-Bunnyan tribe is influential in Kuwait. The new Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Fayyad bin Hamid bin Raqed Al-Ruwaili originates from a merchant family that “overlooks” the Red Sea into Egypt. The new Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, General Mohammed bin Ahmad bin Abdurrahman Al-Shallan is from a tribal family that spans Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and southern Iraq. The new Commander of the Royal Saudi Navy, Lieutenant General Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Sultan “watches” Yemen. In these different positions, the new Saudi military leaders are likely to be task to manage strategic “directions” for the purpose of future absorption of military purchases for forthcoming operations if trouble emerges.

U.S. Foreign Military Sales

The Saudis will be receiving what they need to create a robust defense. It is telling that the U.S. Defense Secretary stated “the notion of integration in their efforts (is) to defend themselves.” It seems to some that Hagel said that America seeks to leave the region by selling more weapons for self-defense in order to boost the American economy in the short term. By changing the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) designation to the GCC as opposed to individual countries, the Obama Administration is making it easier for the U.S. Congress to make one decision instead of multiple deliveries that can “get lost” in the FMS approval process.

The events of May 14, 2014 will be looked at as another turning point between the United States and Saudi Arabia based on partnership. One Arab official noted that “Saudi Arabia’s relationship right now should be viewed through the lens of partnership and not the ideas of strategic alliance popular with the Americans.” Although this point is controversial the idea is that Riyadh still holds contempt for America’s view on Egypt, inaction on Syria, and possible emerging detente with Iran.

Saudi Arabia is moving forward in the region, creating policy and approaches not only to Iran, but obviously helping Egypt. Tehran is now critical for the Saudis in terms of settling the situation in Syria and ultimately Iraq. There appears also to be an ongoing process regarding Saudi-Iranian attitudes towards Yemen. An Arab official stated that Oman has been hosting representatives from both countries to discuss the Houthi noting “see how much Houthi activity has been occurring of late? Nothing.” Finally, the Kingdom does not want infiltration from the Syrian battle space specifically from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria as was demonstrated recently by the arrest of 62 people in Saudi Arabia. As we move forward towards the summer, potential fruitful policies will be forthcoming from Saudi Arabia as the Kingdom adjusts to the new security environment radiating from the Gulf Littoral with a fresh military command.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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