Saudi Arabian National Guard
Saudi Arabia really has two different armies. The Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) is not like the US National Guard. It is a tribal force forged out of those tribal elements loyal to the Saud Family. The SANG's mission is to protect the royal family from internal rebellion and the other Saudi Army, should the need arise. It is also a counterbalance within the royal family to Sudairi control over the regular armed forces. The Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA) 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.
The SANG, in many ways the most traditional and conservative element of the Saudi military forces, was a direct descendant of the Ikhwan, the tribal army that served Abd al Aziz so well during his long effort to retake the Arabian Peninsula for the House of Saud. After having to curb the independent military operations and excesses of the Ikhwan, Abd al Aziz permitted it to reappear as the so-called White Army (the name stemmed from the traditional Arab dress rather than uniforms worn by the members), which later became the national guard.
Although not subordinate to the Minister of Defense and Aviation and frequently referred to as a paramilitary or an internal security force, the national guard came to be regarded as a integral part of the Saudi military establishment with the modernization of its active units and its role in the Persian Gulf War. The SANG is not a reserve component similar to the national guard of the United States; at least part of it was an active-duty armed force existing parallel to, but separate from, the regular military service branches.
With its tasks of preventing intertribal warfare and protecting the House of Saud from any possible threat, the national guard has been the primary agency for upholding the security of the government. The loyalty of the guard has, however, been more than blind allegiance to the person of the king. In 1964, when the kingdom was in trouble under King Saud, the guard supported Faisal and the Al Saud in deposing the monarch, acting as an instrument in a controlled process of succession. Under its commander, Abd Allah, one of the powerful princes in the kingdom, the national guard remained an important factor in national stability.
By 1960 the entire Saudi Army numbered only about eighteen thousand troops, with another eighteen thousand men serving part- or full-time in the country’s National Guard. The head of the national guard for three decades since 1962 was King Fahd's half brother and designated successor, Amir Abdullah. Prince (King after August 2005) Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. He took command of the SANG in the early 1960s as an ally of his half brother, Prime Minister Faisal (who became king in November 1964), in the struggle to wrest control of the government from King Saud.
Three of Abdullah's sons also held positions in the guard organization. The guard chain of command was completely separate from regular military channels, as was its communication system. Commanders of major units reported directly to Abdullah, and he reported to the king. In the post-World War II era, as Arab monarchs in other countries fell to coups and revolutions, the Saudi royal family evidently decided that a parallel army such as the national guard would be a form of insurance against coups. Its continued existence was, however, also a matter of tribal and family politics. Abdullah was considered the leader of the Shammar branch of the Al Saud, a rival source of power to the Sudairi branch that dominated the regular armed forces.
SANG recruited heavily from Bedouin tribes traditionally loyal to the house of Saud. By one estimate, by 1970 the National Guard had a numerical strength of about thirty-five thousand at that time, but many of its soldiers were paramilitary irregulars who operated from regional centers throughout the country to keep order. By another estimate, SANG had twenty-thousand regular troops dispersed throughout the kingdom and approximately thirty thousand irregular soldiers who supplemented the regular force by serving part time. These military and paramilitary forces came from the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Some of the guardsmen were organized into effective infantry units; but overall, the force was poorly armed and ill trained for modern warfare or for the control of internal security in an era of growing terrorism.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent threat to Saudi Arabia were pivotal in the progression of the SANG program. The national guard was the first Saudi military unit to respond to the invasion and took up strategic defensive positions along the border with Kuwait. In one swift stroke, SANG vindicated all the years of effort and training that had gone into making it the Kingdom's most effective fighting force.
When Operation Desert Storm was launched, SANG units participated in some of the earliest and heaviest fighting at the Battle of Khafji, but their participation did not stop at the border. SANG units were actively involved in the liberation of Kuwait that quickly led to the resounding defeat of Iraqi forces, demonstrating that SANG is not strictly an internal security force, but an integral element of the total defensive capability of the Kingdom.
The strength of the guard in 1992 was estimated at 75,000, but 20,000 of that total served in a militia status, on call for mobilization rather than on daily active duty. After the war ended, it was reported that an enlargement of the national guard to eleven or twelve active brigades was contemplated. In September 1991, Crown Prince Abdullah, SANG Commander, approved a plan to expand the SANG to a 100,000-man force of 11 brigades, including combat support and combat service support elements. The Commando APCs were to be replaced by more than 1,000 eight-wheeled light armored vehicles (LAVs) manufactured by General Motors in Canada. The linchpin of the expanded SANG was the ongoing acquisition of 1,117 Light Armored Vehicles built by Diesel Division General Motors of Canada at a cost ofapproximately $3.3 billion under a FMS contract. During 1995, deliveries of the LAVs continued and requirements for a follow-on buy was being considered. The LAVs were to be mounted with a variety of armaments, such as 25mm guns, kinetic energy guns, and TOW missile launchers.
The 10-year vision of the SANG included dramatic modernization initiatives by OPM and SANG under the leadership of the Crown Prince and his Assistant Deputy Commander for Military Affairs, HRH Prince Miteb. OPM-SANG personnel were directly involved with all aspects of SANG's force expansion and in helping develop a total army. OPM priorities include forming 5 LAV-equipped brigades, improving SANG C2, modernizing training methodologies, expanding the definition of modernization to the light infantry brigades, and upgrading SANG artillery. By 2004 the 3 LAV Brigades were nearly complete, and the priority effort in the near-term is the completion of these three brigade combat teams.
The US is also assisting in the development of initiatives to enhance SANG Command and Control at the Strategic/National Level through the upgrade of their Underground Command Center, and at the Tactical Level through the establishment of an Intermediate Field Command in the Central Region. An advanced, turreted mortar system for the LAV is being fielded, and a LAV mounted assault gun system was also fielded within the next two years. Additionally, a wide range of advice and support is being provided to SANG Health Affairs. Supporting both the LAV and Medical program is a robust construction program that is jointly managed by OPM and SANG personnel.
SANG headquarters include the Headquarters Military Staff, Regional Headquarters (east and west), an Intermediate Field Command in the Central Region (in development as of 2004), Signal Corps, and a Logistics Command in the Central Region (in development). The SANG training base includes National Guard Military Schools, Regional Training Centers, SANG Signal School, Allied Health Science Military School, and King Khalid Military Academy.
As of 2004 Units include 3 Mechanized Brigades and 6 Infantry Brigades. A Light Infantry Brigade of the Saudi Arabian National Guard consists of four line battalions. Major weapons systems include Cal 50 machine guns, 84mm and 106mm recoilless rifles, and 81mm mortars. The SANG also included 2 Separate Battalions; Security Force to include a Special Brigade, Special Security Battalions, Military Police Battalions and two Guard Battalions; Headquarters and Regional Signal Units; Regional Logistics Base Commands; one Engineer Battalion; Medical to include Military Field Medical Command, King Fahd Hospital, Falcon Peninsula Hospital, and Regional Medical Units.
SANG's Eastern Region Military Agency consists of the following units: the Eastern Region Headquarters; the Prince Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud Light Infantry Brigade; the Eastern Region Training Center; the Region's logistical, military police, and service units; and several irregular Fowj elements located throughout the Region from Al Khafji to Abqaiq.
In the Western Sector SANG's mission includes defense of the two holiest Islamic sites located in Mecca and Medina. The SANG WS consists of a Region Headquarters, two Light Infantry Brigades, a separate Light Infantry Battalion, a Military Police battalion, the Guard Battalion, a Signal Unit, logistics support elements, 8 irregular Fowj elements, and service units. The Omar bin Kattab Brigade (OKB), named after the Second Caliph of Islam, is stationed in Taif.
The King Abdul Aziz Brigade (KAAB) is located within the Eastern Region but is under the command and control of SANG Headquarters in Riyadh. The brigade is stationed in Hofuf, approximately 130 kilometers southeast of the coastal city complex of Dammam-Al Khobar-Dhahran. Also referred to as the 2nd Brigade, the unit consists of three combined arms battalions; the 2nd Artillery Battalion, the 2nd Logistics Support Battalion, the 2nd Engineer Company, and the 2d Signal Company. The brigade is equipped with the V-150. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the KAAB was deployed to the Eastern Region area of responsibility (AOR). They participated in the defense of the Kingdom and counterattacked with U.S. and other coalition forces to recapture the city of Al-Khafji from Iraqi forces. The KAAB is the only SANG unit to have been deployed as a unit in actual combat against an enemy. As a result of their role, the advisory effort increased substantially. In 1991, full time advisors were assigned.
As of 2010 Units include 3 Mechanized Brigades, each consisting of 4 Mechanized Combat Groups, and 5 Infantry Brigades, the later each consisting of 3 Infantry battle group, 1 Artillery battalion, and 1 Logistics support battalion.
Saudi Arabian National Guard [SANG] - 1970s Transition
By the early 1970s King Faisal wanted the Saudi Arabian National Guard, commanded by his half brother, Prince Abdullah, included in the overall modernization of Saudi Arabian armed forces. At the insistence of King Faisal, Abdullah acquiesced to modernize the Guard and began talks to secure assistance from the U.S. government.By personal background and culture, Prince Abdullah had a far greater affinity to the Bedouin world than to the modern world of American technology.
In September 1971, the king asked for assistance from the United States. The resulting study formulated a plan to improve the National Guard’s equipment and training. In early 1972, Prince Abdullah began talks with the Mediterranean Division about implementing a modernization program. As talks progressed in early 1972, Abdullah repeatedly requested explanations from American personnel of the processes involved in Foreign Military Sales. The Americans had a substantial amount of work to do in developing working relationships and procedures with HRH Abdullah and National Guard Staff. Drawing on a long-standing relationship between the British military and the Saudi Arabian National Guard, one of the experienced British advisers warned that SANG leaders had no real knowledge even of their own government’s administrative procedures for approving projects or for arranging payments.
A year later, on 19 March 1973, the United States and Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding that included the sale of equipment; design and construction of facilities; development and initial operation of a training program; and design and implementation of communications, logistical, and maintenance systems. This document was very similar to the memorandum signed in 1972 establishing the Saudi Naval Expansion Program.
The Department of the Army assigned overall management responsibility for the SANG modernization program to the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC). In late April 1973, the U.S. Army Materiel Command received orders to appoint a program manager and to establish a program management office for the SANG modernization program. AMC established the Office of the Program Manager for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG).
Training of the national guard became the responsibility of the Vinnell Corporation of the United States in 1975. About 1,000 United States Vietnam veterans were initially recruited to serve in the long-term training program designed to convert the guard into a mobile and hard-hitting counterinsurgency force that could also reinforce the regular army if necessary. These contractors were supervised by a United States military group with the designation Office of the Program Manager--Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG).
On 24 August 1981 the United States and Saudi Arabia signed a six-year memorandum of understanding concerning the development of a comprehensive health care system for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Since September 1979 when Prince Abdullah requested assistance from several countries, the U.S. has carried on negotiations with the SANG. The prince had asked for a complete health care system throughout his kingdom, to include construction and operation of hospitals and clinics, training programs, a logistics system, a field medical service, a medical records system, and a medical evacuation system. A team of Army Medical Department and Corps of Engineer personnel developed an intensive plan for accomplishing these objectives in August 1980. The Army provided the plan to the Saudi National Guard. Further discussions with Prince Abdullah revealed that his immediate interest was to open and have in operation two hospitals already under construction -- one in Riyadh and one in Jidda.
Other countries expressed interest in the project and negotiated with the Saudi Arabian National Guard at the same time as the United States. In December 1980 the Saudis agreed that the British should operate the hospital in Jidda. Additionally, the Saudi National Guard and Great Britain entered into a memorandum of understanding for development and implementation of an entire health care system for the Saudi Guard. The following month the U.S. proposed that the U.S. operate and maintain the Riyadh hospital complex as a 200-bed acute-care facility. The Saudi Guard accepted the proposal, and the U.S. prepared an appropriate letter of offer and acceptance. However, the Saudi Guard wanted a memorandum of understanding similar to the one with Britain, addressing the entire medical project. Following detailed negotiations, the two countries signed the memorandum of understanding on 24 August 1981. The dollar estimates for a complete health care system were in the billions.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the regular army and the national guard were both small and of roughly equal strength. The guard suffered when the army's expansion was given priority, but in the 1970s the decline was reversed when the guard was converted to a light mechanized force with the help of United States advisers. Initially consisting of four combined arms battalions, the active-duty component had by 1992 been enlarged to two mechanized brigades, each with four infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and engineering and signals companies. The guard's mobility over desert terrain was assured by 1,100 V150 Commando wheeled APCs. Firepower came from 105mm and 155mm towed howitzers, 106mm recoilless rifles, and TOW antitank missiles mounted on APCs.
The second component of the national guard, made up of tribal battalions under the command of local shaykhs, was organized into four infantry brigades. These men, often the sons of local chiefs or of veterans of the original Ikhwan forces, reported for duty about once a month for the purpose of receiving stipends. They were provided with obsolete rifles, although many had individually acquired Soviet AK-47 assault rifles. Although neither particularly well trained nor well equipped, they could be counted on to be loyal to the House of Saud if called for service. Their enrollment in the guard was largely a means to bolster the subsidies paid to local shaykhs and to retain the support of their tribes.
Saudi Arabian National Guard [SANG] Facilities
For its part, the Corps of Engineers pursued the construction management objectives set forth in the memorandum: planning, designing, and building the facilities necessary to realize the modernization program. The Corps of Engineers managed the planning, design, and construction of facilities. Mediterranean Division staff and National Guard leaders defined a construction program including a new headquarters complex at Riyadh and new training, maintenance, and support facilities at Khashm al An, northwest of Riyadh. In 1973, the division estimated that the construction program would exceed $100 million. By the summer of 1975, that estimate had risen to $250 million with intimations that construction might expand to several billion dollars more.
The limitations on the involvement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the modernization of the National Guard came from Abdullah’s sense that the program, and possibly the Corps of Engineers, had failed to meet his expectations. Abdullah had visited the Saudi Arabian Army’s new cantonment at Khamis Mushayt. Impressed by the quality of the facilities, he had begun to discuss building similar complete cantonments for the regular troops of the National Guard. The SANG had more men than the Saudi Army, which meant that such an undertaking would involve possibly six to eight cantonments throughout the country.
In September 1975, the SANG staff began informal discussions with the Corps about fulfilling Prince Abdullah’s desire to have installations comparable to the army cantonment at Khamis Mushayt. The discussions addressed preparation of master plans for two military cities to be located at Al Qasim, about ninety miles west-southwest of Buraydah, and at Al Hasa, south-southwest of Dhahran and six miles northwest of Hufuf. Each city would have facilities to support a population of seven thousand five hundred, including areas for a cantonment, specialized training, firing ranges and maneuvers, recreation, a main post, family housing (nine hundred houses), and contractor housing. Nothing happened until late October 1976, when the Saudi Ministry of Finance gave SANG’s deputy commander, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Towaijri, approval for the study and design of the military cities. The Corps of Engineers estimated facilities would cost roughly $1.33 billion.
By February 1978, estimates for construction of the two cities had reached $2 billion, nearly twice the original rough estimate. The costs of design and the estimated costs for construction dictated a change in approach. Until early 1978, the designs for the two cities, which had similar facilities, had proceeded in tandem because the early construction packages for the two were the same. Over time, the design for the military cities had grown to roughly twice the size of the 1975 specifications. By March 1978, instead of a population of 7,500 per city, the projection was for 14,000. Instead of 900 houses, it was now 2,250. Instead of a small dispensary, the criteria now called for a 100-bed hospital expandable to 200 beds. Although the original concept included no airfield, a field capable of handling C–130 aircraft became part of the design. The Guard had also added a VIP complex, a 4,000-seat stadium, and sixty-one bomb shelters each with a 400-person capacity — all features absent in the original scope.
In June 1978, the Corps of Engineers informed the Guard that more funds would be needed to continue work on the design. In response, the SANG staff verbally directed the Corps to concentrate design funds on Al Qasim; thus, the division stopped all further design effort on the military city at Al Hasa. On 27 May 1979, the Saudi Arabian government approved its budget for the coming fiscal year. It contained no money for starting new projects in any ministry and no money for SANG military cities.
In December 1980, the Guard informed the Corps that it planned to provide housing and other facilities for its units at various locations around the kingdom. Part of this program might include construction of the military cities at Al Hasa and Al Qasim, reversing the previous order of priority. SANG anticipated that funding for this construction would come in the following fiscal year’s budget. The Saudi Arabian National Guard never asked the Corps for any additional work on the military cities. The impact of inflation and worldwide economic trends around 1980 strained the Saudi national budgets, dictating a cutback in defense spending and hurting the SANG modernization program.
Extensive military infrastructure facilities were built to ensure the comfort and well-being of national guard units. Their major cantonments were in Al Ahsa Oasis near Al Hufuf and the major oil installations of the Eastern Province and at Al Qasim in Najd Province in an area where many of the tribal elements were recruited and most training was conducted. A large new housing project for guard personnel, with associated schools, shops, and mosques, has been constructed near Riyadh, also the site of the guard's military academy, the King Khalid Military College. Other national guard military cities were located at At Taif, Ad Dammam, and Jiddah. A new headquarters complex was built in Riyadh in the early 1980s.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list