Monday, June 21, 2004

Roles of the Military in Two Middle East States

Lucas Henry

The role of the military varies from country to country in the Middle East, but in every state in the region, the armed forces have had some impact on each respective nation’s history, political institutions, and form of government. For some leaders, the military has served as an important source of authority, providing the necessary ingredients to legitimize their bases of power, and has helped to stabilize the footing of the ruling class amid both internal and external sources of opposition. In other countries, the military has remained more autonomous and has sought to preserve its own interests when confronted by ideological threats from those in charge of the government. To better understand how the military has come to play such diverse roles in the Middle East, one may analyze the historical relationships between the military and society in two states in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and draw conclusions from these examples about why this component of the social order plays such an important purpose in each state’s political history.

In all nations, the military serves the function of protectorate for those in power, in theory if not in actual practice. Oftentimes, the origins of these forces help to explain their later allegiances or lack thereof to the governmental authority. Another important element in explaining the behavior of military officers, those with the potential to undermine a government’s positions, is the relative strength of their situation; where there is strength, there is potential for flexion. An illustration of how the military has acted to support those in charge can be found in Saudi Arabia, where a number of factors have resulted in a loyal, albeit somewhat weak internationally, force committed to the interests of the royal family. In describing the rise to power of Ibn Sa’ud, Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. explains the emergence of the Saudi Kingdom and notes that “over the span of some thirty years, most of the tribes and emirates of the Arabian Peninsula became united under Ibn Sa’ud” (232). This control of bedouin forces provided the initial framework for a Saudi military. The royal family came to rely on nomadic tribes’ faithfulness, acquired through the charm or threats of Sa’ud, to serve as the basis for an armed force; such an organization functioned well at the time, as the government could call up men as necessary. In order to be as effective as possible, however, Sa’ud sought to resettle many of the tribes in strategic locations throughout the country. With British forces nearby, such repositioning aimed to deter foreign military operations and helped to unite much of Arabia within a generation. As the country was still financially poor at this point and the ruling family feared a potential coup that might accompany the establishment of a professional officers’ corps, this arrangement seemed most preferable in the first decades after the creation of the Saudi Kingdom.

The discovery of oil greatly impacted the formation and makeup of the military in Saudi Arabia, but its ultimate allegiance to the ruling family was not changed by the introduction of more modern forces. With the first exports of oil from the Arab Peninsula came two reasons for upgrading the military: money was now available for this purpose, and valuable installations, needing protection, now existed. Roger Owen writes that this resulted in the establishment of a more permanent military, noting the “recruitment of a small royal guard and then of the nucleus of a professional army trained by the United States” (209). The role of Uncle Sam in the development of Saudi Arabia’s military is another interesting political element; it is best explained through the tenets of the Eastern Question, which will not be outlined here.

The 1960s brought international pressure to step up military expenditures, and large sums of money were spent on new weapons, barracks, military hospitals, etc. The government’s expenditures here helped create a reliable (but highly privileged) class of officers. Outside of the air force, little time was spent training, so although the military remained allied to the government, it had little effectiveness on foreign soil (as evidenced in the Gulf War).

Owens notes three features which help to explain the interaction between the military and political powers. First, higher levels of command were relegated to royal princes, which aided in a cohesive relationship between the two forces. Second, internal security was provided by a separate national guard composed of loyal tribal elements. Third, foreign officers provided technical advice and helped to prevent coups. These elements signify that the ruling family has always been wary of the power of the military, but realizing its importance to maintaining power, it has sought to implement a military structure that is as conducive as possible to the royals’ overall interests.

Whereas Saudi Arabia’s military has been largely manipulated by the ruling class, in Turkey the military has remained more independent from the official government. To understand this only requires a brief recounting of the military’s role in Turkish history. In 1923, Turkey was created from what was left of the Ottoman Empire. Kemal Ataturk was a westernizing reformer and a strong Turkish nationalist. Among the reforms instituted following the First World War, secular laws replaced traditional religious rules in 1928. Following Ataturk's death in 1938, a two-party system emerged in Turkey. A free election in 1950 saw the Demokrat party peacefully take power from the Republican People's party. The Demokrat party—relying on the support of entrepreneurs, peasants, and pious Muslims—alarmed the army as it grew in power; officers in the army overthrew the government in 1960, and in 1961, a constitution for what would be called the Second Turkish Republic was drawn up by civilians under the careful oversight of the military. The Demokrat party was outlawed and its leader was hanged. Another rival party, Justice, grew in power and managed to eventually gain complete control of the government before it, too, was checked by the army's intervention in 1971. By 1980, numerous parties had sprung into existence, and government became impossible to manage. After clashes between left- and right-wing extremists killed hundreds of Turks, the army once more took control of government. Following three years of military rule, a new constitution was put into place and general elections were held again in 1983. Turgut Ozal became prime minister, and under pressure from the West, Turkey hesitantly lifted its ban on political freedoms. Economic growth and greater political stability has ensued, although the resurgence of Islam still poses challenges to the secular factions of government (Goldschmidt 222-3).

Although Turkey’s military has been used in international conflicts (e.g., Cyprus) and its position is seen as unique by the United States as the only predominantly Muslim member of NATO, the military in Turkey has mainly functioned as a means of providing internal control (much as in Saudi Arabia). The difference between the militaries of each state can be found in the spring from whence their respective perceptions originate. Whereas Saudi Arabia’s military has tended to follow its rulers’ commands, the greater autonomy from politics in Turkey can be attributed to three factors. First, Turkey’s army has a much greater history than that of Saudi Arabia; the one-time prestige of the Ottoman Empire still influences how the army thinks of itself. Second, because the military in Turkey controls its means of recruitment, it can maintain its own views (separate from those of politicians) better than it otherwise might. Finally, Turkey’s military views itself as the guardian of the true day-to-day values of the state. Because it has been able to remain somewhat distanced from Turkey’s republican parliamentary democracy and the whims of the day’s politicians, a distinct culture has developed in the military, creating a quite interesting dynamic between those in government and those in the armed forces.

Ultimately, one may come to understand a great deal about a state through an analysis of how its parts work with or against one another. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are each unique examples of how the military has come to play an important role in the structure and function of political institutions, but a great deal more variability exists in the Middle East, and only time will show how these relationships between power bases will eventually play out. The waiting game is always fun.


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