Following a series of reports that began to appear in late September, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdel Aziz has confirmed that Riyadh intends to construct a 560-mile security fence along the kingdom’s northern border with Iraq (al-Arabiya, October 4). This comes amid mounting concern about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and fears that this may impact Saudi Arabia’s domestic struggle against Islamist terrorism. Construction of the fence is scheduled to begin next year and will likely take five to six years to complete. The kingdom originally invited bids for the project last April, and at the time a number of British firms were reported to have expressed interest. The contract, estimated to cost $500 million, has yet to be awarded, and is part of the larger $12 billion MIKSA project to improve Saudi border security throughout the Arabian Peninsula (Asharq al-Awsat, September 28).
Plans to secure the Iraqi frontier include the construction of fences on either side of a 100-meter “no-man’s land” containing concertina wire obstacles, ultraviolet sensors and night vision cameras with facial recognition technologies, and buried motion detectors. Command posts, helipads and observation towers are to be spaced along the frontier, all linked with access roads. The entire security strip will be preceded by sand berms at the Iraqi border, and Middle East Economic Digest reported in September that the fence project would include 135 electronically controlled gates, although it is unclear if the proposed barrier would seal the entire border or just major crossing points. The Saudi government had previously invested upwards of $1.8 billion to improve security on the Iraqi border, according to the Saudi National Security Assessment Project (Associated Press, September 27). At present, there already exists a 20-foot-high berm and a regularly patrolled six-mile wide security zone along 500 miles of the border.
Reports of the fence’s planned construction come amid growing concerns that the worsening security situation in Iraq has the distinct potential to adversely affect Saudi Arabia’s domestic security. For some time, a number of observers have warned of the danger posed by the potential return of Saudi nationals from the insurgency in Iraq, although it has been asserted that many of the Saudis active in the Iraqi insurgency engage in martyrdom operations and therefore pose no threat of returning. Although Saudi security officials have stated that the presence of the nationals is a major concern, the actual number of Saudis thought to be active in the insurgency has been estimated recently by the U.S. Army to be approximately 12% of the 3,000 foreign nationals actively fighting against Iraqi and coalition forces (Agence France Presse, October 4). This would make the Saudi component approximately the sixth largest in the insurgency, behind the Algerian, Yemeni, Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese contingents . While small, this number is admittedly still a concern for Saudi authorities. As recently as October 2, for example, al-Watan reported that two more Saudis were killed in Iraq and a third captured in fighting in al-Anbar province.
While the threat of returning Saudi jihadis perhaps gains the most attention, as evidenced by a September 27 discussion of the fence on al-Jazeera television, a number of other security concerns contribute to the desire to secure the kingdom’s previously porous borders. These more pressing concerns include the rise of arms smuggling—itself connected to the movement of militants and a factor in the Islamist insurgency that Saudi authorities have battled for a number of years—illegal immigration, trafficking of persons and drug smuggling, along with the increasing fear of Iraqi refugees fleeing from the mounting chaos of war-torn Iraq .
Saudi Arabia continues to battle the serious threat of Islamist terrorism and has recently begun to try suspected terrorists in Sharia courts, according to Prince Ahmed, the deputy interior minister (al-Ikhbariya, October 5). He also noted that a number of militants and extremists have been released after repenting for their crimes (Arab News, October 5); some have estimated that the number of released suspects may be as high as 700 (Reuters, October 5).
Overall, construction of the security fence will certainly prevent Saudi nationals from entering Iraq from Saudi Arabia; this may also help to reduce the threat posed by Saudi Arabia’s domestic insurgency since it will deprive Saudi insurgents from augmenting their ranks with battle hardened fighters returning from Iraq. Nevertheless, it will not eliminate these concerns since it is believed that most Saudi nationals active in the insurgency transit through Syria.
1. “Fractured Iraq: Implications for Saudi National Security,” briefing slides prepared by the Saudi National Security Assessment Project.
2. Based upon personal communication with Nawaf Obaid, director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project.