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Saudi Arabia’s much-vaunted effort to overhaul its defense and national security architecture may be America’s best bet to rebuild relations with the kingdom in a way that permeates values ​​and complicates the establishment of similar defense ties with China or Russia.

“Through the defense reform vehicle, the Biden administration has the opportunity to engage the Saudis on critical national security issues while safeguarding American strategic interests and honoring American values,” the analyst said. politico-military and former Pentagon official Bilal Y. Saab.

“It’s a wise form of US aid that isn’t politically controversial, doesn’t cost US taxpayers a lot of money, and doesn’t require a significant US presence on the ground. This may be the only way to reset the currently strained relationship by gradually restoring trust between the two sides,” Mr. Saab concluded in a detailed study amid a debate on the future of US-Saudi relations. and a controversy over a visit by the president to the kingdom. Joe Biden earlier this month.

Biden’s visit may have helped persuade Saudi Arabia to divert oil shipments destined for Asia to Europe, but did little to restore Middle East confidence in reliability of the United States as a world leader and guarantor of security.

Rather, the visit served to rehabilitate the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, tarnished by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi with little return in terms of, for example, human rights in the kingdom.

Drawing a comparison to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic reform and diversification plan, Mr. Saab argued that the development of implementation mechanisms that are refined as the plans move forward would determine the advocacy success and other change programs.

“What Riyadh lacks in Vision 2030 is not strategies or ideas – it has a lot of them – but processes that help get them from point A to point B. It’s the same problem with the plan of defense transformation,” Saab explained.

“The trick for well-meaning US advisers involved in the Saudi defense transformation plan is to get the Saudis to stop treating it as an end in itself and get them to work on critical processes they desperately need. needed to defend the kingdom today and adequately plan for the future,” he added.

The overhaul of the defense and national security architecture, the most radical military reform since the creation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, aims to enable the kingdom to defend itself, absorb and use the systems of American arms and to make significant military and defense contributions to regional security. said Mr. Saab. If successful, the reforms would offer “invaluable lessons for U.S. military assistance in the region.”

Until now, “the kingdom has been the model for dysfunctional US-Arab military cooperation, representing everything that has gone wrong in US-Arab defense relations,” said Saab, who at the Pentagon had responsibilities. monitoring of the US Central Command that operates in the Middle East, noted.

“For far too long, Washington has been selling the Saudis and other Arab partners expensive weapons they either didn’t need or didn’t know how to use and maintain properly, never bothering to help them develop. their armed forces so that they can assume their own national responsibility – security duties,” Saab said.

Over the years, Saudi spending on arms acquisition, among the highest in the world, juxtaposed with the kingdom’s inability to perform on the battlefield and defend itself, has made it the butt of jokes and jokes. ridiculous.

The Saudi failure was one driver of past widespread empathy with jihadists who, with 9/11 and up to the defeat of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, seemed able to do more with less .

Certainly, the Gulf states have come a long way since they were unable to respond militarily to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and needed the international community to come to their aid.

Saudi Arabia has since deployed and supported a military force in Yemen for the past seven years, but has been unable to reverse the Houthi rebels’ territorial and strategic advances or prevent one of the world’s worst crises. humanitarians in the world.

Mr. Bin Salman, who has taken full control of all Saudi defense and security forces since coming to power, has been guided in his national security reforms by lessons from the war in Yemen, the Houthis and/or or Iranian attacks on oil and other critical infrastructure in the kingdom as well as the United Arab Emirates, and the failure of the United States to respond vigorously to these incidents.

“Instead of severing or degrading defense ties with the Americans, the Saudis have wisely chosen to partner more effectively with them and seek their advice on how to create a more capable defense establishment. Washington answered the call,” Saab said.

But Mr Saab warned that while “this shift in the attitude of the United States towards defense relations with Saudi Arabia and the Saudi self-defense is monumental, necessary and overdue”, it was only a part of the equation. “The Saudis have yet to execute, and given the broad scope of their defense reforms, the journey will be long and arduous,” he said.

Mr. Bin Salman set the tone for the reforms noting that “when I walk into a base in Saudi Arabia, I find the floor is marble, the walls are ornate and finished to a high quality. When I walk into a base in America, I don’t see any ceiling; the floor is neither carpeted nor marble, but only concrete and practical.

The state of Saudi defense was abysmal before the launch of reforms in 2017.

“Saudi Arabia had no ability to formulate a coherent national defense strategy or effective operational and tactical guidance for its armed forces. The vision only existed in the minds of one or two members of the royal family. educated in the West close to the king, and there were no clear procedures for effectively communicating strategic and political directions to the military,” Saab said.

The Saudis lacked systematic defense analysis and strategic planning to prioritize missions and capabilities and identify needs, which would have helped them avoid purchasing expensive equipment they did not need.

Global analysis and planning also allowed them to monitor, assess, assess or improve the level of readiness of their troops. Similarly, the Saudi ground and air forces could not communicate with each other, making coordination virtually impossible.

Saudi air and missile defense is perhaps where the kingdom has made the most progress. It intercepted hundreds of Houthi missile and drone attacks, although some defeated Saudi defences.

“Many of Saudi Arabia’s defense issues… still exist. What is encouraging, however, is that the Saudis, under the leadership of MBS (Mohammed bin Salman), now recognize these shortcomings and seem, for the first time, determined to address them in partnership with the United States and, to some extent with the UK. said Mr. Saab.

The atmosphere and public posture may be one thing, the substance of US-Saudi cooperation is another. In the final analysis, cutting through the noise to focus on what’s happening in the real world may be the best gauge of the future of US-Saudi relations. And that may be a more optimistic picture than it seems.


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