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Military Threats to Israel: Saudi Arabia


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 requested 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 Tornado 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.

Dramatic Changes Under MBS

Since becoming crown prince, next in line to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MbS, has made a series of dramatic moves to solidify his authority in the kingdom, strengthen the Sunni alliance against Iran, fight corruption and institute reforms such as improving the rights of women.

In an interview, ex-Saudi Intelligence Chief Turki Al-Faisal revealed in 2019 that secret relations between Israel and a number of Gulf states date back as far as 25 years. Interactions have become more public due to the shared interest in confronting the threat both see from Iran.

While critics of Israel frequently accuse the Israelis of trying to provoke the United States to go to war with Iran, it is the Saudis who openly called for the United States to use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. During his 2018 visit to the United States, MbS reiterated the Saudis’ determination to develop their own nuclear weapon if Iran builds a bomb.

The Saudis drew closer to Israel during Barack Obama’s term because of their feeling that he did not appreciate their interests and did not take a sufficiently hard line in dealing with Syria or Iran. That relationship also became more open with Saudi officials not only meeting with Israelis in public forums, but allowing their photographs to be taken together, something unheard of in the past.

In March 2018, the Trump administration convened a meeting to discuss the need for humanitarian assistance for the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians boycotted the meeting, which previously would have caused Arab leaders to do the same; however, the Saudis and others came to the meeting with Israeli officials. This, along with the Saudis’ muted reaction to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, were indications of the growing willingness to minimize or ignore Palestinian concerns, in part out of frustration with their intransigence.

During a visit by MbS to the U.S. in 2018, two other striking developments occurred related to Israel. The first was the disclosure that the Saudis, for the first time, allowed an airline to use its airspace en route to Israel. The airline was Air India and not El Al, so it was only a small step forward; nevertheless, it was a milestone.

Even more significant was a comment made by MbS in an interview with The Atlantic, in which he said, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” When asked if Saudi Arabia has any “religious-based objection to the existence of Israel,” MbS replied, “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.”

Despite the warming of relations, the Saudis still have no formal diplomatic ties with Israel. Moreover, Israel still has certain concerns about the Saudis’ arsenal. Under previous administrations, the United States alone sold the Saudis more than $100 billion worth of arms, including many of its most sophisticated weapons. In May 2017, the Trump administration agreed to the largest sale yet, $110 billion, including  advanced air defense systems, ships, helicopters, intelligence-gathering aircraft, tanks, artillery and cybersecurity systems. Israel is especially concerned with the Saudi request for U.S. assistance in building a nuclear reactor, which could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

Sources: American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC);, (September 12, 2003);
AP, (June 16, 2005);
London Times, (December 22, 2005);
AFP (May 22, 2006);
Forbes (August 18, 2006);
BBC (September 17, 2007);
Defense Industry Daily, (September 20, 2007);
Reuters (December 29, 2011);
Jeffrey Goldberg, “Saudi Arabia Promises To Go Nuclear if Iran Does,” The Atlantic, (February 7, 2012).
Judah Ari Gross, “‘How can it hurt?’ Why Israel says it’s not worried by Trump’s huge Saudi arms deal,” Times of Israel, (May 22, 2017);
Zvi Bar’el, “The Saudi Nuclear Program: Here's What Should Worry Israel and Trump,” Haaretz,  (March 26, 2018).
Jeffrey Goldberg, “Saudi Crown Prince: Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Makes Hitler Look Good,’” The Atlantic, (April 2018);
“Ex-Saudi intelligence chief reveals secret Israel-Saudi relations,” Middle East Monitor, (February 11, 2019).

Map Courtesy of The Jewish Connection