US efforts to secure the vast oil resources of the Persian Gulf exacerbated the military incompetence of Imperial Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this article, by examining the military incompetence of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Imperial Iran in Dhofar (Oman), Jack Sargent outlines the failure of the US to encourage meaningful reforms.


US engagement with the Persian Gulf in the Cold War began in February 1945, with the meeting of President Roosevelt and Saudi monarch Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud. The two leaders traded cheap oil for military protection, an arrangement that continues into the present day. This policy would, as President Jimmy Carter stated in 1980, involve the United States viewing ‘an[y] attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf…as an assault on the vital interests of the [US].’ The Second World War had shown beyond doubt that easy access to oil would be crucial in any potential conflict with the Soviet Union, and the economies of the West were premised on easy access to oil. The control of the Persian Gulf’s vast oil reserves was simply critical to success in the Cold War.

The Twin Pillars policy represented the first lone effort by the US to maintain this access. Following the UK’s decision to withdraw ‘east of the Suez’ and the impact of the Vietnam war on US public opinion, President Richard Nixon changed policy to focus on arming and training regional partners. The Twin Pillars policy would begin the massive militarisation of both Pahlavi Iran and Saudi Arabia in support of Nixon’s belief that ‘the [US]…has a right to expect that…[regional] problem[s] will increasingly be handled by the…[partner] nations themselves.’

While the US would build vast military forces in both nations and provided extensive training, neither developed much capability. This was seen in the strikingly similar, and largely ineffective performances of the Imperial Iranian military in Oman, and the ongoing Saudi Arabian campaign in Yemen. This article argues that this incompetence was the product of regime paranoia and the unending desire of both the Shah and the House of Saud to eliminate threats to their rule. It argues that US efforts to militarise these regimes to guard access to oil, at the expense of meaningful reforms, facilitated this incompetence. The significant implications this has for the Persian Gulf are also discussed.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s military ineptitude is a direct result of their failure to create independent military institutions. Both nations fear that a strong and separate military would be a threat to regime survival, and so have adopted stringent measures to ensure against a military coup. The Shah populated the military with informants, and Saudi Arabia maintains a National Guard parallel to its army. Further, the Saudi military officer corps is composed of soldiers promoted on basis of loyalty, not ability. The Shah’s interference was so great in the daily running of the military that no one above second lieutenant could be transferred without his written consent.

Neither militaries were vested with trust from their rulers. The reforms needed to move from largely incompetent forces to capable militaries was unpalatable to the Shah and will continually be unappetising to Saudi Arabia. The Shah saw democratisation as inimical to his interests, and Saudi Arabia is no different. Independent government bodies did not exist in Imperial Iran and do not exist in Saudi Arabia. Military capability is mostly found in states where the armed forces are not constantly subject to suspicion by the ruling elite. A cursory glance at regional powers in the Middle East supports this. Only Israel has a military unhindered by concerns of loyalty and maintaining internal control. This maps comfortably onto the military history of the region, in which Israel has defeated or successfully deterred every major regional power.

This failure to build legitimate military ability reduced two significant regional militaries to outgrowths of murky, multibillion dollar co-dependencies. The Saudi military is essentially a by-product of a security guarantee underwritten with hundreds of billions of dollars. The Imperial Iranian military was more promising but suffered similarly as the Shah sought to foster even greater US support for his regime by sheer weight of arms deals.

The leaked Western analysis of Saudi Arabia’s military foray into Yemen and the assessments of Imperial Iranian military actions in Dhofar highlight the martial incompetence of Saudi Arabia and Imperial Iran. Taken together, they demonstrate the corrosive effect of dictatorial paranoia on military capabilities. This paranoia was exacerbated by US policy towards Imperial Iran and Saudi Arabia. The policy, at the expense of encouraging worthwhile reforms, sought to preserve and militarise existing regimes to guard access to oil.

There are a number of key parallels between the Shah’s involvement in Dhofar and the Saudi quandary in Yemen. Firstly, both view the massive expenditure of ordinance as a salve for any tactical obstacle. In his dissection of Iranian military (in)competence, Major General Perkin bemoaned ‘how the latest…smart weapons…became the standard counter to almost any threat…’ Clandestine French analysis characterises the Saudi led war in Yemen as a ‘…campaign of massive and continuous airstrikes against territories held by the Houthi rebellion’ by the Saudi’s fleet of modern Western jets. Neither military possesses the tactical acumen to hold land. Instead, they rely on exploiting their overabundance of air power to simply subdue it.

Pahlavi Iran and Saudi Arabia could not and do not operate without significant Western support. Western technicians employed by the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) believe that ‘if we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky’. The RSAF is also wholly reliant on ‘targeting effectuated by American drones’, as well as the more obvious US material support. This situation is not new. A 1976 national intelligence bulletin commented that ‘Saudi Arabia remains heavily dependent on foreign military advisers and technicians.’ The Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) likewise was wholeheartedly reliant on America, with US government analysis in 1976 believing that there was ‘a dependency of the IIAF on the US [which was] unavoidable until the mid-1980s.

Secondly, as a consequence of Imperial Iran possessing a vast amount of advanced weaponry, ‘…the problem of managing this new equipment detracted seriously from basic training.’ This led to infantry being unable to carry out relatively advanced tasks, as training was shifted from infantry skills to learning to operate this new equipment. To fill this gap in the Dhofar campaign, special forces were attached to each battalion, to complete objectives ‘within the capability of properly trained infantry’ that ‘required particular initiative, expertise, or special skills.’ This is also readily observed in Saudi operations to secure their border with Yemen. Despite fielding an overwhelmingly modern mechanised force, they operated ‘ineffectively’ and the operation was a ‘failure’. Further, Saudi Arabia has at times relied on US special forces to direct air strikes against Houthi sites-a key function of 21st century warfare. This highlights a sharp inability to carry out small unit tactics, which are the core of basic military training.

Two of the major military partners of the US’s Middle Eastern policy have had their actual military ability severely curtailed by distinctly paranoid concerns on the part of their rulers. The Shah’s dictatorial nature prevented the Imperial military from becoming a capable force. The Crown Prince’s near total control hobbles Saudi Arabia’s military might. The failure of both to reform underscores their lacklustre performance. This aversion to reform was abetted by the United States, which preferred regime stability and access to oil over democratic governance, which may have jeopardised the US’s primacy in the Persian Gulf.

This is particularly stark in the case of Saudi Arabia, where throughout the history of US-Saudi relations oil has been paramount. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was seen in 1952 as holding a ‘unique position among the Arab States’ as its ‘oil resources…may be required in war’, and in declassified briefings on Saudi arms procurement in 1981, ‘Saudi oil resources’ were seen as ‘vast and irreplaceable’. The importance of the Kingdom, and by extension, the Saudi monarchy, to the US was best elucidated prior to the Gulf War, where George H.W Bush informed King Fahd that ‘[t]he security of Saudi Arabia is vital – basically fundamental – to U.S. interests and really to the interests of the Western world.’  During the Twin Pillars Policy the importance of Saudi Arabian security translated into arms procurement. Saudi Arabia began to purchase billions of dollars worth of US arms – a policy which continues to this day. Despite the close ties between the US and Saudi Arabia, American diplomatic efforts to maintain this relationship have focused exclusively on security issues, at the expense of meaningful reforms.

Similarly, the US bought wholeheartedly into the colossal defence spending of the Shah, selling roughly 22 billion worth arms between 1970-79. While the US, at the outset of the Twin Pillars policy believed the ‘Shah’s…state of mind…[was] indeed puzzling’ resulting from a ‘penchant for moodiness’ and the ‘intoxicating effect’ of his ‘successes’, there was no official effort to curb what was seen as an ‘almost messianic desire to transform Iran into a country as modern as any European [nation].’ These modernisation efforts, their economic ramifications and the Shah’s severely oppressive measures went largely unopposed by the US. As the Shah’s closest partner, the United States could have encouraged meaningful reforms to diffuse the nascent revolution.

The efforts of the US to ensure access to oil in Saudi Arabia and Pahlavi Iran, and its impact on their military ability has two key implications for the Persian Gulf.  Firstly, it helped drive Revolutionary Iran from conventional to asymmetrical military strategies. Iran, due to its international isolation and the weak performance of the military in the Iran-Iraq War, moved away from the conventional military maintained by the Shah. Instead, Iran now uses proxy militias to accomplish foreign policy goals. Key examples of this are the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and various groups in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Therefore, any future conflict with Iran will involve multiple groups, across multiple nations with no clearly defined battlefields.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia has consistently sought the deployment of forces from friendly nations when necessary, trusting the military ability of Pakistan, Egypt and the US over their own lavishly funded forces. Thus, any major conflict involving Saudi Arabia will inevitably be somewhat global. Considering the current rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the military incompetence of Saudi Arabia and pre-revolutionary Iran have set the stage for a globalised, ambiguous and ill-defined conflict in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

US policy towards Pahlavi Iran and Saudi Arabia focused on securing existing regimes to guard access to oil. This can be traced to the Twin Pillars Policy, where the US provided both Saudi Arabia and imperial Iran with billions of dollars of military equipment and training. However, the failure of the US to encourage meaningful reforms led to near identical incompetence in Imperial Iran’s foray into Oman, and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. What’s more, the failure of the US to appropriately address the military incompetence of Saudi Arabia and Pahlavi Iran has direct implications for the stability of the Persian Gulf.


Jack Sargent is a recent graduate of LSE’s History of International Relations MSc Programme. His research focuses on Middle Eastern regional security issues and nuclear proliferation. His dissertation examined the nuclear ambitions of the Shah of Iran.

Cover Image: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministerial conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 14, 2014. Credit to Wikimedia Commons.