Why the Armies of Arabia Remain Weak Institutions

Armies of Arabia
Armies of Arabia by Zoltan Barany

Armies of Arabia

Early in the book, Armies of Arabia, Zoltan Barany writes, “Perhaps the most important and conspicuous attribute that all Arab armies in republics and monarchies share is their remarkable ineffectiveness on the battlefield.” This is where most of us need to start. Barany seeks to understand why the Gulf monarchies field ineffective militaries despite their vast material resources. So, it’s impossible to discuss Armies of Arabia unless we recognize two indisputable facts. The Gulf monarchies have enormous wealth from oil and other mineral resources and yet they cannot defend these resources on their own. 

I remember the Gulf War as a kid. We watched CNN in the classroom as the United States responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the time, I was 10 so I did not understand the geopolitical reasons for American involvement. It was simply something American leaders believed they must do. But even looking back, I never considered why the United States became involved or rather I only thought about it from the perspective of an American. The decision involved questions of American involvement in the world. I never wondered why Saudi Arabia was unable to deliver a meaningful defense to Iraq. 

The militaries of the Gulf region do make substantial investments into their military, yet they remain unable to defend their country against other countries in the region. Barany notes, “American and/or British forces are the real defenders or true primary security providers of the monarchies of Arabia “ Why? Barany argues the despotic nature of the kingdom’s undermine their ability to strengthen state institutions like the military. This argument raises important questions about state capacity, institutional weakness, and authoritarianism. So, let’s take a closer look. 

Institutional Weakness in the Military

Many describe the military as an authoritarian institution. Indeed, no other institution in contemporary society values order and discipline more than the modern military. More than any other institution, it depends on a strict hierarchical chain of command. Moreover, it is different, because it is a central part of the state while it remains apart from the bureaucracy of the state. Nonetheless, the military plays an important role in a social ecosystem. It influences the culture, even though the culture influences it. 

Brinks, Levitsky, and Murillo argued institutional weakness was the inability of an institution to accomplish its aims or objectives. Obviously, every institution has some degree of weakness, but some institutions remain noticeably weaker than others. The inability of Gulf militaries to deliver military objectives then is a clear sign of institutional weakness. In my interview with Daniel Brinks, he emphasized what he called the social co-production of enforcement. In other words, institutions outside a given institution shape the behavior and effectiveness of that institution. 

The most important political institution in the Gulf countries is the monarchy. Obviously, the monarchy begins with the monarch, but it also extends into the royal family. So, military hierarchies find they compete for respect and recognition with hierarchies of social status. Barany uses the example of fighter pilots who fail to receive the type of criticism or training necessary to perform at an elite level. Moreover, the military fails to weed out many of its participants due to social dynamics. Similar social pressures exist throughout the armed forces producing challenges to deliver effective results. 


I cannot overstate that the most important political institution in the Gulf countries is the monarchy. Barany puts it all in perspective when he writes, “Gulf armies are not national armies but the armies of the ruling families.” Indeed, the construction of the Gulf armies reinforces Barany’s insight. The Gulf countries employ many third country nationals in their armed forces, so the military does not reflect a sense of national responsibility. Instead, it is merely another form of employment that the Gulf countries find they must outsource to immigrant labor. Of course, some Gulf countries have begun conscription to engage their citizenry in military affairs. Nonetheless, its aims reflect the priorities of the rulers rather than the nation. 

A great irony is that democracies have consistently field effective militaries. The reasons vary among scholars, but many argue democratic cultures encourage the mindsets best suited for the armed forces. Indeed, the popular imagination focuses on the role of orders and commands soldiers must accept, but soldiers often find themselves in unexpected circumstances. They must often become problem solvers with an emphasis on critical thinking and creativity in those situations. Despotic governments, on the other hand, actively work to limit the ability of its citizens to think on their own. As a result, their soldiers want to limit their mistakes rather than take on responsibility. 

Obviously, many autocratic governments have fielded effective militaries. However, they differ from the Gulf militaries in two key respects. First, the military remains a national institution rather than a possession of the monarch. So, citizens have a sense of responsibility for the armed forces even under an authoritarian government. Secondly, authoritarianism is a spectrum where some autocratic societies have more freedom than others. The Gulf monarchies are among the most repressive. 

Final Thoughts

Of course, an autocratic government does have the potential to direct the priorities of the state without much room for opposition. The United Arab Emirates is a case in point. Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) has transformed the armed forces of the UAE into the most capable in the Gulf region. In contrast, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has hollowed out the armed forces of Saudi Arabia through misguided ambitions and priorities. Despite his focus on military affairs, the military of Saudi Arabia has become less effective and even exposed through its poor performance through the Yemeni Civil War. 

Still, Saudi involvement in Yemen raises some important normative questions about military affairs in the Gulf region. Indeed, it raises questions about how more effective militaries in the region might behave. Would a more effective Saudi military destabilize the region especially with MBS as its monarch? Barany believes effective militaries in the Gulf would stabilize the region. It would counter the ambitions of Iran and deter future conflicts. However, a far more effective path towards stabilization is through democratization. Unfortunately, after the failures of the Arab Spring, democracy in the Gulf is highly unlikely even in the distant future. 

Zoltan Barany joins the Democracy Paradox tomorrow to discuss his book,  Armies of Arabia. Check it out to understand the reasons why Gulf militaries remain ineffective despite their vast material resources. 

Further Reading

Holger Albrecht and Dorothy Ohl (2013) “Exit, Resistance, Loyalty: Military Behavior during Unrest in Authoritarian Regimes,” Perspectives on Politics

Zoltan Barany (2021) Armies of Arabia: Military Politics and Effectiveness in the Gulf

Zoltan Barany (2021)  “Burma: The Generals Strike Back,” Journal of Democracy

Risa Brooks (2013) “Abandoned at the Palace Why the Tunisian Military Defected from the Ben Ali Regime in January 2011,” Journal of Strategic Studies

Ben Hubbard (2020) MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman

Samuel Huntington (1957) The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil–Military Relations

Tarek Masoud (2021) “The Arab Spring at 10: Kings or People?Journal of Democracy

David Pion-Berlin (2016) Military Missions in Democratic Latin America

David Pion-Berlin, Diego Esparza and Kevin Grisham (2012) “Staying Quartered: Civilian Uprisings and Military Disobedience in the Twenty-First Century,” Comparative Political Studies

Frederic Wehrey (2015) “The Authoritarian Resurgence: Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats,Journal of Democracy

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Zoltan Barany on the Ineffectiveness of the Gulf Militaries

Daniel Brinks on the Politics of Institutional Weakness

More Episodes from the Podcast

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