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Military Threats to Israel: Saudi Arabia

(Updated April 2012)


Saudi Arabia has accumulated one of the most modern militaries in the Arab world. Although it poses a minimal threat to Israel on its own, the Saudis have participated in previous Arab-Israeli wars, and the prospect that it could do so again, now with its state-of-the-art weapons arsenal, must be taken seriously. An additional risk that cannot be dismissed is the possibility of a hostile, anti-Western regime taking over the country.

Israeli military assessments must account for the Saudi air force because the quality of Saudi aircraft and aerial missiles are on par with Israeli models, directly impacting on Israel’s vital qualitative military edge.

In the early 2000's, Saudi Arabia reportedly transferred much of its advanced F-15 fighter-jet fleet to the Tabuk air base near Israel's southern border in violation of the kingdom's promises not to do so. From this advanced base, the jets could reach Israel's southern border in about six minutes. United States requesta that the Saudis return the planes to their original bases were never followed. Consequently, Israel has had to increase its monitoring of Saudi Arabia.

In 2005, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia began collaboration which saw Britain strengthen their involvement in modernizing the Saudi armed forces and engage in joint training and exercises. In August 2006, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK for the delivery of 72 Torndao aircraft in an $8 billion deal. In September 2007, the Saudi's announced a multibillion dollar contract with BAE systems for 72 advanced Eurofighter Typhoons. This new fighter plane had previously been sold only to countries involved in manufacturing the planes — Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Austria.

In 2007, Boeing announced it signed a contract to enhance the Saudi AWACS radar plane fleet by installing secure, jam-resistant, digital data links that allow military aircraft, ships and ground units to exchange tactical pictures with each other in near real time.  These AWACS planes had originally been sold to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980's by the USA with restrictions placed on how the planes would be equipped after the sale was opposed by many members of Congress.

In December 2011, the United States signed a $29.4 billion deal to sell 84 F-15s in the SA (Saudi Advanced) configuration. The sale includes upgrades for the older F-15s up to the Saudi standard along with the related equipment and services.

Nuclear Ambitions

In light of Iran's nuclear weapons development program concern is steadily growing that Saudi Arabia is also interested in pursuing a nuclear option.

In May 2008, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia agreed to establish a nuclear cooperation relationship and, in August 2009, the Saudi minister of water and electricity announced that the kingdom was working on plans for its first nuclear power plant.

In July 2010, Saudi Arabia and France announced the signing of a nuclear cooperation pact in order to develop atomic energy and the following year, in February 2011, they signed another bilateral cooperation agreement for the development of nuclear power.

With the threat from Iran looming every larger, a senior Saudi defense official noted in January 2012, “We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t ... If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.” Prince Turki al-Faisal expounded on this sentiment when he noted that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, “[that] would compel Saudi Arabia…to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences”.

In January 2012, King Abdullah signed an agreement with China for cooperation in the development and use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

Saudi Stability

Saudi Arabia faces openly critical opposition forces and dealt with public discontent in the wake of the Arab Spring in early 2011. While Saudi Arabia is considered one of Washington's closest friends in the Gulf, opposition forces are openly critical of its close ties with the U.S. and the West. In recognition of this sentiment, the Saudi government has been reluctant to host American troops or stockpile American military equipment, which has led the United States to remove most of its troops from the kingdom and to shift its principal military base in the region to Qatar.

In past years, several Saudi dissident groups - most notably al-Qaida - have actually attempted to overthrow the government, though they have all failed. Saudi Arabia was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the atrocities of September 11 and has been uncooperative in investigating not only those terrorist attacks, but two others perpetrated against Americans on Saudi soil: the November 1995 bombing of the Saudi National Guard training center in Riyadh, which killed five Americans, and the June 25, 1996, attack outside the U.S. Air Force housing facility in Dhahran that killed 19 Americans.

Some Saudi individuals, as well as members of the royal family, have been accused of financing Islamic radicals within countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan. The monarchy also supports Islamic schools around the world that teach the most extreme interpretation of Islam.

Sources: American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC);
, (September 12, 2003);
, (June 16, 2005);
London Times, (December 22, 2005);
(May 22, 2006);
(August 18, 2006);
(September 17, 2007);
Defense Industry Daily
(September 20, 2007);
Reuters (December 29, 2011);
Map Courtesy of The Jewish Connection