Leadership: American Mamelukes In Saudi Arabia


January 26, 2011: The Saudi Arabian Air Force had an embarrassing incident recently, when an air force lieutenant, in the rear seat of a two-seat F-15, ejected in a panic when he spotted a large bird apparently about to collide with the aircraft. A captain, in the front seat, who was flying the aircraft, made an emergency landing (if only because the aircraft was hard to fly with the canopy gone). The lieutenant also landed safely, by parachute. The air force is conducting an investigation, but such spontaneous, and ill-advised use of the ejection seat is not unusual in the Saudi Air force. In fact, the entire Saudi military suffers from similar problems with poor training and leadership.

Over half a century of oil wealth has made the Saudis soft and inept. During that time, most of the work force has been imported, and attempts to reverse that have not gone well. Saudis will not do work that is "beneath their dignity." That includes learning to be good at modern combat. This has always been a major problem with training pilots, and many aircraft have been lost because some well connected kid insisted on being a fighter pilot, but lacked the aptitude, or fortitude, to succeed at the training. While many foreigners are still used to maintain the air force jets, the Saudis are the pilots and they vary enormously in ability. The few who are good at it are worked hard, and the worst are kept out of the way these days.

On the ground, poor leadership and haphazard training made Saudi troops easy meat for the combat experienced Yemeni tribesmen a year ago. This made the news in Saudi Arabia, but nothing was really done to solve the problems, which include lots of corruption and tribal politics. So the Saudis buy more high-tech, and very expensive Western weapons, hire Westerners to maintain the gear, and hope that there are at least a few Saudis capable of pulling the trigger, or pushing the button, effectively when crunch time arrives.

This is not a uniquely Saudi problem. Historically, it's quite common for fabulously wealthy areas to lose their warrior spirit to the extent that mercenaries have to be hired to defend the fabulous lifestyle. In Islamic countries, it was common to train slaves (often children) to become professional soldiers (Mamelukes and Janissaries) or hired trusted foreigners (Chechens and Baluchis). For centuries, Baluchi tribsemen (from southwest Pakistan) served as mercenaries in Arabia. But wary Saudi Arabia sent the last of its Baluchi battalions home in the 1980s, although some Baluchis still serve in the Gulf. But the Saudis don't feel safe hiring foreigners to handle defense, although their willingness to cooperate with the United States is another way of having friendly foreign troops handy for an emergency.



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