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Murphy's Law: The Sad Saudi Secret
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November 4, 2010: Saudi Arabia has just ordered $60 billion worth of weapons and military equipment. That's in addition to the $50 billion it has spent on that stuff since September 11, 2001. All this is to protect trillions of dollars worth of oil from increasingly likely Iranian aggression. While the thousands of aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles and other high-tech systems looks impressive, the actual impact of all this lethal hardware depends a lot on the skill of those using it. In this department, the Saudis have some serious problems. And it is generally very difficult to get Saudis to even discuss these problems.

Examples are widely available, and seen daily by the thousands of Western technicians, specialists and trainers hired by Saudi Arabia to keep their high-tech gear operational. For example, Saudis, and Arabs in general, don't care for the Western custom of establishing minimum standards for, say, fighter pilots. It's long been known that it is very difficult to wash out a Saudi pilot who is well connected (especially a member of the huge royal family). There are some very good Saudi pilots, but they are a minority. The rest get by. As long as they can take off and land, they can stay in a squadron. During combat exercises, especially with American squadrons, it's understood that the low overall performance of Saudi pilots is not to be discussed with the Saudis, or anyone else. Junior American officers get irked by this, but it's career suicide to disobey orders on this point. The Saudis do spend a lot of money on training and letting the pilots fly. For this reason, they are considered marginally better than other Arab air forces. But against the Iranians, who more enthusiastically accepted Western training methods, they would have problems. Iranian aircraft are older and less well equipped, but pilot quality would make up for a lot of that.

The problem extends to ground crews, who don't take responsibility seriously and have to be constantly hounded by their foreign advisors and specialists hired to make sure the aircraft are flyable. And when something goes wrong, the foreign experts are expected to take the blame. That's what the foreigners are there for.

Many Saudis are aware of the problem, especially those who have studied in the West, or spent some time there. As a result, there are some very competent Saudi doctors, scientists and bankers. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Saudis seek ways to work around these problems. For example, the royal family established the National Guard in the 1930s, as a private, tribal army, that is now almost as large as the regular army and considered more dependable and effective than the regulars. That's because the National Guard troops follow traditional rules of military leadership, and have a personal relationship with the king. Only men from tribes that are known to be loyal to the Saud family may join, and they are expected to make their family and tribe proud. Saddam Hussein, and other Arab leaders, form similar forces. Saddam had his Republican Guard. Despots the world over tend to have a guard force recruited more for blood ties and loyalty, than for anything else.

The regular forces (army, navy and air force) are just government jobs, run by another government bureaucracy. There are lower standards because there are none of the family or tribal ties that demand better. Only in the West do most people give the same devotion and respect to non-family/tribal institutions.

It comes down to a different cultural attitude towards taking responsibility for your actions. It's human nature to avoid failure, or taking responsibility for a mistake. Thus we have the concept of "saving face." One reason the West has made such economic, cultural, military and social progress in the last five hundred years is because they developed a habit of holding people responsible for their actions and giving out the rewards based on achievement. In the West, this sort of thing is taken for granted, even if it is not always practiced.

But in much of the rest of the world, especially the Arab world, things are different. Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority, as in Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq (formerly) and Nejdis in Saudi Arabia. All of which means that officers are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Then there are the Islamic schools, which are so popular in Moslem countries, which favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it, and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies rewrite the book and thus usually win.

All of this makes it difficult to develop a real NCO corps. Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies, and nobody cares.

Arab officers often do not trust each other. While an American infantry officer can be reasonably confident that the artillery officers will conduct their bombardment on time and on target, Arab infantry officers seriously doubt that their artillery will do its job on time or on target. This is a fatal attitude in combat.

Arab military leaders consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. This had catastrophic consequences during all of the Arab-Israeli wars and continues to make peace difficult between Israelis and Palestinians. When called out on this behavior, Arabs will assert that they were "misunderstood."

American officers and NCOs are only too happy to impart their wisdom and skill to others (teaching is the ultimate expression of prestige), but Arab officers try to keep any technical information and manuals secret. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach, but on what he knows that no one else knows.

While Western officers thrive on competition among themselves, Arab officers avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. Better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone.

Western troops are taught leadership and technology; Arabs are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as officers are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as officers.

In Arab bureaucracies, initiative is considered a dangerous trait. So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Battles are micromanaged by senior generals, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab officer will not tell an ally why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western officers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab officers simply will not admit that they do not have that authority.

This lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arab armies to maintain modern weapons. Complex modern weapons require on the spot maintenance, and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab armies avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops (which makes the timely maintenance of weapons difficult). If you can afford it, as the Saudis can, you hire lots of foreign maintenance experts to keep equipment operational. All this is taken for granted inside Saudi Arabia, but looks quite strange to Westerners who encounter it for the first time.

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