Saudi Arabia has ordered its elite National Guard to prepare to take part in the country’s ongoing campaign against Houthi militants in neighboring Yemen. Saudi King Salman is reportedly preparing to send the ground force to participate in the military campaign, signaling 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 modernized and the force was turned into a more conventional national guard.
The SANG’s tribal connections and organization allows the force to serve as a counter-weight to the official Saudi military which operates under the Ministry of Defense. 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 defense contractor. The training emphasized counterinsurgency operations and was carried out by a force of 1,000 US Vietnam veterans.