by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
These days the United States considers Saudi Arabia an important ally in the war against militant group Islamic State—as well as in the standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, the Pentagon was downright dismissive of the Gulf state and its troops.
“The United States is committed to building stronger military cooperation with our partners in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said during a May 2014 meeting with Saudi officials in Jeddah.
Compare that to nearly 60 years ago, when American advisers spoke with brutal—and often racist—candor about the alleged poor quality of Saudi soldiers. You can find the advisers’ biting comments in formerly classified transcripts that the U.S. Army’s Heritage and Education Center recently declassified.
At the time, the Gulf kingdom had an organized military in name only. Saudi officers frequently ignored their American counterparts’ advice. And U.S. trainers worried the kingdom’s army wasn’t prepared to defend against a potential coup.
But the American advisers stuck with the Saudis, mainly out of fear of losing the country to Soviet influence.
In 1957, U.S. Army colonel Donald Diehl spoke briefly about Saudi Arabia at a meeting of American military advisers in Pakistan. The chief of the Military Advisory Assistance Group for the kingdom didn’t think highly of his post.
“The MAAG in Saudi Arabia is not in any sense a true MAAG,” Diehl said by way of opening. “It is there, we believe … for purely political reasons,” he said of the assistance group.
Diehl and his deputy, Army colonel Lyman Bothwell, didn’t feel any better about the Saudi military. Bothwell described Riyadh’s troops as poorly trained, at best.
Diehl and Bothwell blamed backwardness and illiteracy for the sorry state of the Saudi soldiers. The two Americans based their conclusions on romanticized and utterly orientalist descriptions of the Middle East nation—not entirely surprising for the time.
“To understand the Saudies [sic], first of all you must realize that they are a highly illiterate race,” Diehl posited. “They have just recently, a small percentage of them, gone from the camel to the Cadillac.”
Bothwell offered a similar appraisal. “The Saudi, as some of you probably know, is a very nice chap,” the adviser told his peers.
“If this were the day of the individual warrior, the man with the sharp sword, a strong army and a stout heart, they would be fine fighting soldiers,” Bothwell added.
But the reigning monarch King Saud was ambitious and fiercely independent. Instead of taking free American military aid, Saud insisted on using the country’s oil wealth to pay for weapons up front, according to Diehl.
“That … gives him a great deal of independence as far as operating his equipment is concerned,” Diehl explained. “If our comments are not to the suiting of the Saudies [sic] we are very politely told or ignored, and the ideas are never put into effect.”
Not that the Saudi armed services had much equipment.
Riyadh’s only real combat aircraft were nine World War II-era B-26 Invaders. Delivered two years earlier, three of the propeller-driven bombers were already out of commission. And Saudi pilots—trained in the West—were struggling to prepare a new batch of flyers at home.
“They are anything but proficient in any phase of training including basic flying,” Diehl said of these new recruits. “It is really a thrill to ride with them.”
Likewise, the kingdom’s ground forces had no tanks or armored personnel carriers. Riyadh’s soldiers counted on 30 second-hand armored cars from the United Kingdom, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
As Diehl and Bothwell offered their assessments, the Pentagon considered whether the Saudis could handle 60 M-41 Walker Bulldog light tanks, according to SIPRI’s arms trade database. Saud wanted to create two divisions of modern infantry along with a tank unit.
The problem was that Saudi Arabia did “not have the technical know-how to support the things that go with two divisions and an armored brigade,” lamented Bothwell.
But American officials had more pressing concerns. Like its neighbors, Saudi Arabia was not immune to the outpouring of anger in the Arab world following the Suez Crisis.
In October 1956, the United Kingdom, France and Israel invaded Egypt. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had taken over the Suez Canal and threatened to close the critical passage to western ships.
Incensed by their allies’ secret battle plan, Washington joined with Moscow to condemn the operation and demand the Europeans and Israelis withdraw.
“The Saudies [sic] now trust us much more than they did prior to the Suez incident, but there is still evidence of suspicion,” Diehl complained. “I think from the minister of defense on down there is a feeling of suspicion.”
At the time, Egyptian technicians were also maintaining the Saudi air force. Diehl worried about the influence these personnel—and the Soviet Union by extension—might have on the Saudi crews, too.
“I do not believe that the king entirely trusts his air force,” Diehl added.
The two American officers believed the Saudi army was still loyal to the House of Saud. Regardless, “we do not take a negative approach in Saudi Arabia,” Bothwell declared. “If we did, we would be defeated at the start.”
In the end, Riyadh distanced itself from Washington and forged closer ties with Cairo. But in 1962, Saudi Arabia and Egypt fought on opposing sides in North Yemen’s civil war.
The conflict again pushed Saudi Arabia to seek American assistance. In 1979, more than two decades after the meeting in Pakistan, Harold Brown became the first U.S. secretary of defense to make an official visit to the country.
By that point, Washington and Riyadh were well on their way to cementing their relationship. In 1991, the kingdom even joined the Western-led coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces.
The U.S. still runs a special training mission in Saudi Arabia out of its embassy in Riyadh. Since 1953, this office has helped American commanders plan practice sessions—and combat missions—with Saudi troops.
This office—known as the U.S. Military Training Mission—also pushes the kingdom to buy weapons from American defense contractors, according to its official Website.
On top of that, the Pentagon has another office that works directly with the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The SANG—controlled separately from the kingdom’s other forces—protects the monarchy, the country’s oil infrastructure and the holy sites at Mecca and Medina.
But the alliance still remains based on mutual convenience. Saudi Arabia depends on U.S. aid to defend itself—and keep the monarchy in power. Washington prefers the monarchy to whatever might potentially replace it.