Saudi Arabia: An NCO Reports

August 15, 2001

Comment: #424

Attached References: 

[1] "Saudis divided over foreign troop presence," Gulf News, February 1, 2001. Attached.

[2] "Saudi Arabia and the WTO,"'s Global Intelligence Update, 08 November 2000. Excerpts attached.

3] "The Brutality of the Saudi Arabian Justice System," Associated Press, March 28, 2000. Excerpts attached.

References 1 thru 3 are reports written over the last eighteen months on the Saudi Arabia.

Collectively, they paint a picture of a country with big problems.  It turns out that one of our readers just returned from a military tour Saudi Arabia.  Not knowing much about Saudi Arabia, I asked him to write a report describing his views of the situation facing that nation.  He did not have access to Ref 1-3, but you will see that his analysis is compatible and in some cases far more thoughtful than the information contained in the attached references.  Attached herewith is the Kountzonikolai Report.


By SSG Kountzonikolai [The nom de plume for an enlisted man with recent experience in the Middle East]

Saudi Arabia is without a doubt the most directionless country I have ever been to.  At the start of this essay, I want to say that much of what I am writing about has been gleaned from people who are most likely better educated on the subject.  These people are primarily military officers who receive cultural and political briefs, but also a variety of civilians who work in Saudi Arabia in non-military related areas.  It is from these people that I have determined that Saudi Arabia is a witch's brew of troubles that is sitting on top of most of the world's oil.  I have little doubt that it will explode and the western world will have to take sides in a civil war that will cross political, religious and family bonds.  It will not be a war that the United States is ideologically prepared to fight.

Right now, King Fahd, with his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, rule the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  It is an absolute monarchy.  They hold power by keeping rival clans placated with a welfare state, and a great deal of consultations.  King Fahd's official title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Mecca and Medina. This is an ancient Islamic title, used to confer legitimacy.  He adopted it during Desert Shield as a replacement for the title "your majesty". One of his obligations is to make sure these two mosques are accessible to the Islamic World.  If he fails to be a proper custodian of these mosques, he will lose legitimacy as a ruler, and his house will fall.  Sitting on top of all this oil, as well as the mosques, makes ruling Saudi Arabia a great target for just about anyone, including. Saddam Hussein and the Iranians.

To complicate a westerner's understanding of the Saudi culture is the fact that it has no semblance to any type of Western democracy, which Saudis regard as corrupt.  Women are treated as subhuman by western standards.  By Saudi standards, they are being protected from exploitation   Slavery, or at least indentured servitude, is practiced. This is of course illegal, although some Saudi sponsors have been known to withhold passports from their employees.  Indeed, it is something of a joke among western expatriates that they are well-paid slaves.

There is no separation of religion and state.  No independent judiciary. No legislature.  There is the King, the Quran (which serves as the constitution of the country), and the Will of Allah.  Universities contain a great deal of religious studies.

Demographically, the country has a rising population of juveniles.  About 10 years ago, the King dictated to his country that Saudis procreate, lest they become a minority in their own homeland.  The people responded, and in a country where men may have several wives, more kids were born. Consequently, over the next two decades, 50% of the population of Saudi Arabia will be under the age of 18.  These kids will be the people born into the Internet/Nintendo generation.  Since much of the offspring will be from a relatively small number of fathers, there will be a lack of parental role models.

These Saudi children were born into a welfare state.  During the oil boom of the late 20th Century, wise King Fahd used the money to build homes, schools, and to create boondoggle jobs.  Now, the price of oil is beginning to decline in real terms, as has the Saudi share of oil production. But all of these kids need to be supported, educated, and trained.  So in order to do this, the Saudis take action to keep the price of oil high. 

The Saudis have other problems.  Prominent among them is a very poor work ethic.  They wish to own the business, but they don't wish to work at it.  They hire foreigners to do the work.  Plus, women are only now beginning to be allowed certain jobs, but they cannot drive.  It is estimated that in order to fill one job, 10 Saudis must be hired, because of the poor work ethic, and societal conflicts.  Many jobs that used to be left to foreigners have become Saudi-ized.  This has led to problems

Let us use a middle level bank worker as an example.  Because women are not allowed to drive, Dad has to take the kids to school (although many of the affluent have drivers for their wives), so traffic in Riyadh is horrendous from 0800 hours on.  Dad finally shows up to work at 0900 hours.  Well, there is the normal tea sipping and stuff till about 1000 hours.  Then you may actually get something close to productive work out of him until 1100 hours.  Prayer time you know.  Well, between prayer time, lunch, and siesta (in fairness, siesta is quite common is most countries with a warm climate), not much happens until 1400 hours.  Then Dad has to leave between 1430 and 1500 to pick up the kids from school.  Then he goes home.  There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, with some Saudi's routinely putting in well over 40 hour work weeks.

The above example is unusual in that it presumes Dad wants to work in a mid-level job.  Most Saudis have grown up living a life of leisure, and do not wish to fill any low or mid-level jobs.


The Saudis really have two different armies.  There is the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG).  It is not like the US National Guard. The SANG's mission is to protect the royal family from internal rebellion and the other Saudi Army, should the need arise.  Then there is the Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA), which contains the "official" Saudi Army (Royal Saudi Land Forces).  Its mission is to protect the country from external threats, and to serve as a balance against SANG, should the royal family decide to eliminate some clan hostile to the King's rule.  Fortunately for the country, this has already been accomplished.  SANG is considered to be qualitatively superior to MODA.  A good analogy may be to compare it with Hitler's ground forces in WWII.  There was the Waffen-SS (SANG), and the Wehrmacht (MODA).

Both militaries have, by western standards, severe leadership, training, and logistical problems.  First of all, being a foot soldier, even if one is an officer, is considered demeaning.  All Saudis want is to be fighter pilots.  So you have an officer corps in the ground forces that take care of themselves first.  Next, what little NCO Corps there is, is based on longevity rather than demonstrated professionalism or leadership ability.  Finally, the troops themselves are little more than easy working slaves. 

An example of the sorry state of leadership was related to me by an armor officer.  It is standard armor doctrine to locate all of a company's tanks 150 meters apart from each other and the  company's tactical operations center (TOC).  In reality, tanks are rarely separated by more than 75 meters.  The reason is that when it is chow time, the food is delivered to the TOC, and the LEADERSHIP EATS FIRST.  The troops get what is left over, and if they are more than 75 meters away, they don't eat.  Field craft, such as building interlocking fighting positions, camouflage, and internal communications are practically non-existent.

Furthermore, there is no concept of a team.  If a soldier in a western army is sent to a special school, there is an expectation that he will share his knowledge with his unit when he returns.  Not in Saudi Arabia. If that soldier receives knowledge, and he is asked to share, his response "What will you give me for it?"  Of course, that soldier is unlikely to be asked.

Likewise, in the Royal Saudi Air Force, there does not seem to be an understanding of what we would consider to be basic logistical standards, like fuel testing, or spare parts management.  Indeed many of these functions are contracted out to third country nationals who could possibly be sleeper agents for other countries (possibly ours) or factions.

There are some signs that conditions may eventually improve within the Saudi military.  Many of their senior officers have trained in the U.S. Some have even studied at our universities.  These officers recognize areas that need improvement, and are encouraging change.  Plus, the U.S. and Britain have had advisors here for decades.  So some of the message is getting through. Of course, these foreign trained officers are pushing a rock up hill, because the royal family is wary of having a military that is too capable.


The relationship between the two countries is conflicting and confusing.  As previously stated, Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, nor does it appear to have any desire to become even remotely democratic by our standards.  They still have basically tribal social organization. So the U.S. is in the contradictory position of defending a political system that is anathema to our own.

The Saudis are also in a contradictory position.  Quite simply, they don't want us in their country, bringing in all the things that are anathema to THEIR system.  But we are guests of the King, who exercises absolute power, and some of the cognoscenti realize that we are needed.  And culturally insensitive Americans are a far more favorable alternative to Fascist Iraqi's and heretical Iranians.  Of course, many Saudis don't believe either pose a real threat to the Kingdom.

Because we are here as guests of the King, the US military receives some subsidy in kind from the host government, such as food, fuel, and utilities.  We are not, however receiving the massive subsidies that GEN Schwarzkopf mentioned in his autobiography.  The US taxpayer is picking up most of the tab for our presence here.  Americans are officially guests of the Saudis, so our troops are not protected by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).  To negotiate a SOFA would mean the US was establishing at least a semi-permanent presence in Saudi Arabia.  That would be politically unacceptable in Saudi Arabia.

Still, the Saudis jerk us around whenever they get the chance.  Especially when it comes money.  For example, let's say the US needs 150 type A widgets.  These widgets are available from a local vendor, who customarily gives a cut of his income to the local prince, who has a silent partnership, or joint venture in the widget monopoly.  Well, it may turn out that the widgets can be more cheaply obtained from the States.  So we order the widgets from on our credit card.  When the widgets arrive in the Kingdom, Saudi customs impounds them for a year as "suspected contraband".  We are then forced to deal with the local vendor.

Also, in order to maintain face with their own people, the Saudi leaders frequently feel compelled to bad-mouth Americans.  After all, being pro-American is considered Anti-Islamic, which is a no-go in Saudi Arabia.  This encourages anti-American sentiment, and encourages the terrorist wannabe's.

Another one of our daily operational challenges is that there are women in the US military.  Saudi Arabia, by western standards, has very little respect for women.  There is no respect for any man who takes orders from a woman.  So our many fine women leaders have to literally take a back seat when dealing with the locals.  On a daily basis, even if we have a mission downtown, like picking up supplies, women cannot function as drivers.  This is particularly a problem when we get sections that happen to be predominately female.  They cannot even drive to the airport to pick-up and drop-off incoming and outgoing personnel.  And sometimes this puts a strain on a number of the guys.  But what is really damaging is that our women leaders cannot deal with contractors, or their counterparts in the Saudi military, because the Saudis simply will not deal with them. 

In fairness to our hosts, let me also state that many Saudis have on a one-to-one basis have extended a great deal of hospitality to American troops. Hospitality is a cardinal virtue in Arab society. It is perhaps not well known, because we don't usually have much contact with the locals.  But it is not uncommon for individual Saudis to be very gracious to Americans.  And in the immediate aftermath of the Khobar Towers Bombing in 1996, many Saudi civilians rushed through the hole that was blown in the fence to render aid to our wounded.  It was also a tribute to the professionalism of the US troops that none of them fired upon these civilians.  Many of them wanted too, but positive leadership prevented a bad situation from becoming worse.


Saudi Arabia is a boiling pot of conflicting religious, political, social, and military problems.  These problems, which are common among tribal societies, are compounded by great albeit shrinking wealth, not to mention a projected increase in demands upon this wealth. Until stability is obtained in the region by the local political leadership, any external power trying to impose peace, will find it difficult at the least, and will ultimately fail.

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing these blasters has been the opportunity for me to meet and correspond with so many soldiers sweating away in the trenches. Too often, we never hear from these men and women.  They are viewed as statistics by the data-free policy wonks in the think tanks and as impediments to the money flow by the plutocrats in Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex.  It is nice to be reminded occasionally of how intelligent and dedicated American soldiers truly are.  Sergeant Kountzonikolai is a case in point.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Gulf News 

Saudis divided over foreign troop presence Riyadh
[ By A Correspondent] 19/02/01  

The Saudis are divided over the indefinite existence of foreign and particularly U.S. troops in the Kingdom and the Gulf region since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. While most educated people and officials believe that the existence of foreign troops in the region is indispensable at present, most clerics who have great influence, youth and university students reject their presence, particularly as violence against the Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territories escalates and Washington has not taken any action to protect the Palestinians.

Washington's pro-Israel stance has created a growing tide of hatred against the United States. Dr. Turki Al Hamad, a Saudi political analyst, says that the issue of the existence of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia must be handled sensibly and logically. "We must set aside psychological and emotional factors ... since the Arabs' anger with Washington due to its stand on the struggle in the Palestinian territories and its bias to Israel is not new. We must not blur the issue with trivialities and to handle each question in a different way."

"The justifications for these troops' existence are still valid and security and stability of the Gulf countries are still under threat. We can't be absolutely certain about ill intention of the Iraqi regime and that of Iran as well. The moderate regime in Iran faces troubles and the situation there may change at any time. The ill intention of the two countries require the existence of foreign troops ," he said.

Al Hamad is not of the opinion that Gulf security is the duty of countries in the region. He termed this call adopted by Iran and Iraq as " illogical" and wondered when was security of the region the duty of its countries.

On the other side, Mu'jab Ayed Al Qurani, a post graduate in Islamic Sharia College, believes that the presence of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia is tantamount to occupation and that " these troops must leave from our lands particularly as justifications for their presence had vanished ten years ago."  Al Qurani said that the countries which dispatched these troops have clear ambitions in the region and they can't be considered friendly countries. They hate Arabs and Muslims and their bias to the Jews against the Palestinians is a hard evidence on this. Despite the fact that the Israelis are occupation troops, these countries side by Israel in killing of the Palestinians and not complying with international resolutions.

A Saudi scholar who preferred anonymity urged leaders in the Gulf countries to deport what he called "troops of disbeliever Americans and British". These troops, he said, are the actual danger that threatens the region and not the Iraqi danger. The existence (of these troops) is rejected and has no justifications," he said. He wondered if these troops protect the countries in the region against Saddam and other tyrannies, why do not they defend the Palestinians who are exposed to all forms of oppressions by the Israeli occupation forces.

Reference #2

Saudi Arabia and the WTO's Global Intelligence Update, 08 November 2000


  • Despite its massive oil resources, Saudi Arabia has seen per capita income slide by roughly three-quarters since the early 1980s, when living standards compared to those in the United States and Western Europe. Today, real per capita income probably is under $7,000.

  • The population has soared over the past twenty years, from an estimated 9 million in 1980 to over 20 million in 1998. According to World Bank figures, the estimated growth rate during this period averaged 4.4 percent.

  • Dependence on oil exports which generate enormous revenues, but few jobs has also made it difficult to keep the growing work force employed.

  • Real unemployment for Saudi males likely average between 25 percent and 30 percent.

  • A large share of the country's huge military budget probably represents kickbacks on weapons contracts brokered by members of the ruling family.

Reference #3

The Brutality of the Saudi Arabian Justice System

Associated Press,
March 28, 2000
CAIRO, Egypt (AP)


Saudi Arabia is committing human rights violations that include torture, amputations, secret trials and public executions and hires American public relations firms to cover up those violations, according to a report by Amnesty International released today ...

Amnesty said the United States and other governments, in order to advance business interests and geopolitical concerns, were helping to maintain the Saudi secrecy ...

Political groups are banned in Saudi Arabia and authorities do not tolerate any form of public dissent. Women are not allowed to drive, have to remain covered head-to-toe in public - in line with strict Muslim laws - and are not allowed to travel abroad without being accompanied by a close relative such as a husband or a brother or with the written approval of a similarly close relative. There are no trade unions in Saudi Arabia and human rights groups have in the past accused authorities of taking unjust and arbitrary action against foreign workers, the majority of whom are from Egypt, India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Iraq and the Middle East