Recent reports that Saudi Arabia (KSA) will shoot down any Iran-bound Israeli jets that violate the kingdom’s airspace were not surprising, given the Saudi’s previous experience with Israeli fighters.
In 1981, a squadron of Israeli jets, bearing Jordanian markings, crossed the country undetected and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. But this time Saudi Arabia is more likely than ever to follow up on its threat, especially because now it has more means to do so.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has acquired a wide range of offensive and defensive weapons provided by the kingdom’s American and European (primarily French and British) allies.
US-Saudi military cooperation started during World War II, when Washington offered to protect the kingdom in exchange for oil, which was crucial to the war effort. Yet, loyalty to another regional ally, Israel, prevented the White House from upsetting the balance of power by selling advanced weapons to the Arab states. The situation changed under the then-President Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 authorized the transfer of 60 F-15s to Saudi Arabia and 50 F-5Es to Egypt (compared with a combination of 90 F-15s and F-16s to Israel).
But it wasn’t until 1981 that Saudi Arabia began to acquire some of America’s most sophisticated weapons, including Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance planes able to intercept any aircraft within a 450,000km2 area while remaining hidden from ground radar.
In October 2010, US President Barack Obama gave the green light to the largest arms sale in US history, approving $60.5 billion worth of equipment and services to Saudi Arabia.
For years, such sales have been justified on the grounds that the kingdom had to defend itself from a number of internal and external threats (like the spread of communism and terror). Israel, on the other hand, was asked not to panic, with US officials alluding to Saudi military incompetence to calm nerves in Jerusalem.
The Jewish Virtual Library, for example, cites a former US diplomat based in Riyadh in the 1990s as saying that “the US Military and Training Mission had difficulty getting the 30,000-man Saudi National Guard to appear where they were supposed to or carry out maneuvers effectively…”
The diplomat further revealed that Saudi naval war vessels “could not be pried from their port berths,” and that during exercises with the US Navy the commanders would refuse to allow their ships to go out of sight of land and required that the crews be able to return before dark.
The lack of Saudi professionalism was also evident during the first Gulf War from 1990-1991. Despite the possession of advanced US weapons, the Saudis asked the US to defend the country from Iraqi invaders. Washington replied by sending 500,000 American troops and launching “Operation Desert Storm”.
Nevertheless, arsenals of heavy artillery at the doorsteps of Israel could spell trouble. As Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, once put it: “It was hypocritical to suggest that the arms could be effective against the Red Army but pose[d] no threat to Israel”.
The situation became particularly alarming in the early 2000's, when Saudi Arabia reportedly transferred much of its advanced F-15 fleet to its Tabuk air base, despite numerous US pleas to return the planes to their original bases. From there, the jets could reach Israel's southern border in about six minutes.
Apart from proximity to Israel, Saudi Arabia presents another challenge. Regarded as the leader of the Muslim world, it is able to unite the masses in anti-Jewish sentiment. Saudis participated in previous Arab-Israeli wars mainly through embargoing countries that supported Israel or funding Arab armies and supplying them with ammunition. Could the Saudi’s now take the next step, considering that their weapons now matching Israel’s state-of-the-art arsenal? Experts doubt it.
“One of the reasons why Israel has put up with the Saudis accumulating sophisticated weapons over the years was because the ammunition was quite useless in their hands," said Dr. Mitchell Bard, an expert on US-Middle East policy and author of “The Arab Lobby”.
"Saudis lack any well-trained professionals to operate the equipment as well as skills to maintain these arms,” he added, stressing that Washington continues to pour arms into the kingdom in exchange for stable oil flow, big revenues and expansion of the labor market.
A similar point of view was voiced by Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, a leading expert on modern Middle Eastern history and a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “The US has always asked for the consent of Israel before going ahead with any arms deals with the KSA," he told Israel Today, suggesting a Saudi-led military campaign was unlikely.
“Except for a few instances, the Saudis have never been directly involved in attacks against Israeli targets,” Teitelbaum noted.
Another internationally recognized scholar, Dr. F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Institute saw a Saudi attack on Israel as “extremely uncharacteristic”. “The Saudis have been very cautious in terms of foreign policy for most of their history, and loathe to confront Israel directly. I doubt that the Saudi leadership has plans to try to mobilize the Arab world against Israel”.
An interesting approach was taken by Caryle Murphy, a Pulitzer Prize winning independent journalist, who has worked in various Arab states including Saudi Arabia. The author of “Passion for Islam” – detailing the roots of religious terrorism and Middle Eastern strife – argued Saudis would not attack Israel because they have never been the aggressors: “The worst thing Saudis have ever done against Israel was the oil embargo, but it affected Saudi allies as well,” she said, referring to the two oil embargoes imposed by the then-King Faisal following the defeat of the Arab armies in the Six Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973).
“Accumulation of weapons was done for defensive purposes only. Saudi leaders have never threatened to use their arsenal against any other state,” she added, charging that the kingdom preferred to use oil to achieve its aims.
Consensus is thus that the Jewish state has nothing to worry about, especially given the fact that Saudis -- just like Israelis -- have another headache: Iran.
Saudi relations with the Islamic Republic were dealt a severe blow by Iran’s revolution of 1979, when hardline Islamists overthrew the ruling royal family.
The US-backed demise of long-time Iranian foe Saddam Hussein in 2003 exacerbated tension in Saudi Arabia. As Tehran continued to "bare its teeth" to Riyadh and Jerusalem, Saudis and Israelis found themselves in the same boat, prompting some to speculate that the two countries could unite in the face of a common challenge.
In June 2010, the Jerusalem Post cited a number of unconfirmed reports as saying that Israel’s Air Force had dropped off large quantities of military equipment at Tabuk, preparing for a potential strike on Iran.
The claim followed a report in the London Times Magazine suggesting that Saudi Arabia had given Israel "a green light" to fly through a narrow corridor of airspace in the northern part of the country to shorten the flight time to reach Iran.
Naturally, Saudi officials rebutted the allegations.