This volume is one of six on the Gulf region produced under the Center for Strategic and International Studies' "Middle East Dynamic Net Assessment" project. The first six volumes include studies of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (each with its own volume), a volume on the smaller states of the lower Gulf, and a slim volume on U.S. forces in the region. Anthony H. Cordesman, co-director of the CSIS Middle East Program, is author or co-author of all the volumes in the series.
When an institution labels its series a "Dynamic Net Assessment" they are seeking to proclaim their product comparable to the output of an intelligence organization or the Plans division of a General Staff; it is therefore only fair to judge the results by those standards. The result is surprisingly good. Readers familiar with Cordesman's tendency to produce large, heavy volumes dense with tables and data will be pleasantly surprised: stripped of its notes, the text is only 196 pages. And while Cordesman devotes a substantial part of the study to military issues, there is solid coverage of the economic picture and competent coverage of social and political issues as well. Readers expecting a clone of the type of book Cordesman frequently produces will be pleasantly surprised.
This work and its associated volumes have obviously been circulated and vetted extensively by experts in and on the region, as any "net assessment" should be. The volume on Saudi Arabia is packed with tables and graphs (as are all of Cordesman's books), but these are clear, excellent graphics providing capsule overviews of such key issues as Saudi debt, oil production, GNP and the like. They illustrate rather than burden the book, and allow the text to be more concise.
As for the target readership, this is clearly a book intended for the policy maker. It provides a comprehensive overview of key issues affecting the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the region, offers concise summaries of key problems and challenges, and provides recommendations for the future. Clearly, too, the book is not aimed exclusively at the Western policy maker: its recommendations provide both diagnoses and prescriptions which should be read by Saudi policymakers as well. While the book and the series are, by design, aimed at a policy community, the volume is also a remarkably useful and concise introduction to key issues for the academic community or for students. (Once again, this is not your typical Cordesman book.) An overview of several of the other volumes in the series suggest they may be comparably valuable. One may hope that the use of the term "dynamic" in the title of the project means that the assessments will also be reviewed periodically; the series' importance lies in its timeliness, and a decade from now it will be largely outdated. For that reason alone, one is grateful that Westview has published paperback as well as hardcover versions at the time of publication.
Precisely because the book is written more or less as a detailed intelligence brief, it is compact and filled with observations it concludes with concrete recommendations, not only concerning specific issues of military or security planning, but also on such delicate and sensitive issues (to the Saudis) as political reform, the Saudi "social contract," and the economy. In one sense Chapter 14, "Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and the West," is the most surprising and, one must add, refreshing.
Discussing political reforms, the author makes clear that Saudi Arabia must continue to expand the role of the Majlis al-Shura, limit the privileges accorded members of the royal family, and recognize the realities imposed by limited oil revenues, rapid demographic growth and other constraints. The author warns, however, against using a combination of accommodating the most conservative Islamic tendencies while repressing Islamic extremists, and warns that the West must not expect a facile application of Western standards of democracy and human rights, which could lead the West into supporting Islamist critics of the regime.
Noting that "Saudi Arabia must redefine its 'Social Contract'" (p. 184), the author offers a comprehensive prescription for social and economic reforms, with 19 points of proposed change: reducing the number of foreign workers, limiting population, creating an educational system aimed at providing job training, reforming the budget and making it reflect expenditures, limiting payments to the royal family, reducing bureaucracy and state employment, ending underpricing of some commodities, and so on. It is a prescription which would dramatically transform the Saudi economy, reduce or eliminate the corruption, luxuriant privilege and questionable payment of commissions that are such central themes of Islamist critics of the royal family, and create a more incentive-oriented economy capable of attracting private-sector investment. Of course, implementing such reforms is easier said than done, but that does not fault the diagnosis.
In the section on the "Social Contract," Cordesman calls for fully integrating national-security spending into the budget and treating it like other types of government spending. ln a separate section on recommendations relating to Saudi military issues, Cordesman calls for greater emphasis on integrating existing weapons systems and training (rather than acquiring additional and domestically controversial arms purchases that the Kingdom does not need). The Kingdom needs better planning, training, sustainment support and the like more than it needs new weapons; realistically, faced with a threat from Iran or Iraq, it will still be dependent on U.S. support as deterrence.
Despite these criticisms, Cordesman does not doubt the need for U.S. and Western security cooperation with Saudi Arabia. He questions the post-Gulf-War U.S. insistence on formal security agreements, status-of-forces pacts and so on, which are so determinedly resisted by the Saudis. The concluding sentences of the book are highly realistic (p. 196): "No nation likes to admit dependence on another, but the success of Saudi military forces ultimately depends on the success of U.S. power-projection capabilities. Saudi Arabia will remain as dependent on the West for security as the West is dependent on Saudi Arabia for oil."