Saudi Arabia has always had problems with the quality of its military leadership. This is because promotions depend more on family connections, especially if one of the candidates is from the royal family. Because the man who founded the kingdom, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, had over forty sons, and those sons were nearly as prolific, there are thousands of male descendents of Abdul Aziz who have passed through the military over the last half century. In addition, there are thousands more from families nearly as illustrious (those that were close allies of the Sauds back in the day). The Saudis are aware of the problem, but like any dictatorship (thats what a traditional monarchy is), loyalty if often more important than competence. Until the 1990s, American and British military trainers were used a lot to train officers, NCOs and troops. This paid off, although there were still incidents were well connected fighter pilots panicked, and bailed out of perfectly good, and very expensive, jet fighters. This past December, the new, French built, Saudi frigate, HSMS Makkah, ran aground on its maiden voyage. At the helm was a Saudi officer apparently selected more because of impeccable family connections, rather than his ability to handle a ship. It took two months to get the ship off the reef, and damage, if any, has not been reported. The skipper, meanwhile, has been promoted upstairs.
Since the 1990s, the Saudis have been increasingly using foreign Moslems, rather than Americans or Brits, to help train the troops. For example, Pakistan has taken over, from the U.S. Marine Corps, the task of training the Saudi Marine Corps. This 3,000 man force was once considered somewhat elite. The troops are still pretty good, but the quality of the officers has gone down. As one recent visitor, a U.S. Marine Corps officer, noted, he had more confidence in a USMC corporal, than a Saudi Marine Corps lieutenant. The older Saudi marine officers and NCOs, who were trained under the stricter Americans, are not only more capable than the younger ones, but also more pro-American. The Pakistani trainers are more likely to be Islamic conservatives with an anti-American attitude, and less stringent training standards.
The lax attitudes, and reliance on leadership that is well connected, and poorly trained, extends to the police force as well. In Jidda, the Red Sea Saudi port, the police, and local government officials, have a reputation for extreme ineptness, even by Saudi standards. This has given Islamic radicals the opportunity to establish a base of operations. The situation is getting worse because of how badly the local officials have handled the case of several hundred stranded Nigerian religious pilgrims. The tour operator for the Nigerians went out of business, and stranded the Nigerians before they could go home. Jidda is the main port for pilgrims entering the country for the annual Hadj. The stranded pilgrims were left to fend for themselves, and many had to beg, or steal, to eat. The Islamic radicals used the situation to gather more support against the well connected, but corrupt, local officials. These officials, including the provincial governor, now have to fear assassination, as well as unrest in the streets. The local police may not be trustworthy enough to deal with an uprising. The kingdom does have a small number of very sharp royals, and a few police and army units that are well trained, and led, but these troubleshooters are currently tied down dealing with the outbreak of al Qaeda violence. This appears to be under control. But the rot in the rest of the armed forces remains.