Saudi Arabia has ordered its elite National Guard to prepare to take part in the country’s ongoing campaign against Houthi militants in neighbouring Yemen. Saudi King Salman is reportedly preparing to send the ground force to participate in the military campaign, signalling a potentially sharp escalation for what has so far been an aerial operation.
If the National Guard is sent to Yemen, it will mean that the Saudis are sending one of the Middle East’s most efficient tools of internal control — and even internal oppression — into Yemen’s intensifying war. Given the Guard’s size and operational abilities, their deployment to Yemen would signal a huge shift in the conflict.
The Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) has foreign training, state-of-the-art-equipment, and a free hand to operate throughout the country. It’s also considered to be unquestionably loyal to the country’s royal family.
It has as many soldiers as Saudi Arabia’s army and navy combined, and makes sure that a geographically vast and potentially fractious country of over 29 million remains under the monarchy’s full, despotic control. According to Chris Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War, the SANG is one of the Middle East’s most capable armed forces.
The National Guard has roots dating back to before the founding of Saudi Arabia. The group originally started as the Ikhwan (brotherhood), a force of tribal Bedouins that supported the ruling House of Saud and its conservative religious ideology in the early 20th century. The Ikhwan held absolute loyalty to the first Saudi king Abdul Aziz. The tribal structure of the Ikhwan was later modernised and the force was turned into a more conventional national guard.
The SANG’s tribal connections and organisation allows the force to serve as a counter-weight to the official Saudi military which operates under the Ministry of Defence. Instead, the SANG reports directly to an appointee of the king.
This allows the king to effectively have his own military force to use against internal or external threats as he sees fit.
Although the SANG is based on tribal ties, the force is highly trained and effective. It has proven its capabilities by keeping a vast country under the full and unquestioned control of one of the world’s most authoritarian governments, and by engaging in military operations outside of Saudi Arabia as well.
The SANG, whose present-day forces are pictured below during a military demonstration, first began to effectively modernize and train in 1975 with significant help from the Vinnell Corporation, an American defence contractor. The training emphasised counterinsurgency operations and was carried out by a force of 1,000 US Vietnam veterans.
The modernization of the SANG is a continuously ongoing process, as the force routinely seeks to purchase airframes, armoured vehicles, and weaponry from the US.
The UK also sends an estimated 20 training teams to Saudi Arabia a year. These teams have instructed the National Guard in the enforcement of public order, the use of sniper rifles, and field-craft training.
During the first Gulf War, the SANG participated in the Battle of Khafji in Saudi Arabia. The group helped drive the Iraqi Army out from Saudi Arabia, and then continued participating in the coalition offensive into Kuwait. This photo shows SANG troops deployed during the conflict.
More recently, Saudi Arabia deployed the SANG to Bahrain during the 2011 Arab Spring. Bahrain’s beleaguered government invited a large convoy of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to crush ongoing and almost entirely peaceful protests.
The Saudis sent a column of National Guard vehicles into the island as part of a multi-national force sent by the Persian Gulf monarchies to preserve the Bahraini royal family’s grip on power.
The Saudi National Guard is one of the best-equipped and most competent armed forces in the Middle East.
In total, there are an estimated 100,000 troops in the SANG, which is more than Saudi Arabia’s army and navy combined. And they are apparently trained to do things like load rifles blindfolded, as during this military demonstration.
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