February 1, 2015: Strategy Page
Saudi Arabia is suddenly very alarmed at the vulnerability of their long borders with Iraq and Yemen. For generations the main border problem was smugglers. Since the 1990s the smugglers have been joined by huge numbers of people trying to enter Saudi Arabia illegally. Worse, the smugglers have now added hard drugs (cocaine, heroin and worse) to their inventory. Finally a growing number of the illegal traffic has been Islamic terrorists entering the kingdom with malice in mind. By late 2014 Saudi Arabia had reached the point where it had told its border guards to shoot-on-sight and shoot-to-kill if anyone caught illegally crossing and refusing to stop. This could cause problems with some of the Saudi tribes living near the border, where tribal members have been smuggling for generations and tribal leadership tolerates a lot of it (especially if they are getting a percentage). But the Saudis know that Islamic terrorists will exploit these relationships if they can and the Islamic terrorist threat. Is seen as more dangerous than tribal unrest.
The second big decision was the new border fence. There was already a border fence along the Iraq and Yemen frontiers, but it was not much of an obstacle. So it was decided to revive a 2006 plan for a security “barrier” along the Iraqi border that would cost over $13 million per kilometer. This would come to nearly $14 billion for the 900 kilometer Iraq border. Work was supposed to begin in 2007 but didn’t. The fence was to be finished in 2009 and wasn’t. The fence was intended to keep out Sunni Islamic terrorists (mainly al Qaeda) who sought to overthrow the monarchy and establish a Sunni Islamic republic, as well as Shia Islamic terrorists who wanted to establish a Shia Islamic republic under the leader ship of Iran. The fence would also reduce smuggling, which has been rampant along this border since the kingdom was established in the 1920s.
Then some government officials, and many ordinary Saudis, complained about the cost. Despite all the oil income Saudi Arabia is still having money problems. A growing population, with too many young people not willing to work as hard as all the imported help, puts an enormous financial burden on the kingdom. Building this fence, as designed, would require a lot more foreign experts and imported technology. So the security people were sent back to the drawing board, and came up with a cheaper solution, that would put more unskilled young Saudis to work. The new design cost only a billion dollars. It consisted of two barbed wire fences and lots of radars, heat sensing devices (infrared “radar”) and other sensors. This would take less than a year to build and would put plenty of people to work setting up 1,800 kilometers of fence, and installing the electronic devices. This new design was believed able to do the job as well as the original 2006 security fence, cost a lot less, and employ lots of Saudis. While completed, the cheap fence lacked many of the sensors (or used ones that were not reliable) and was easy to cut through. When these flaws became obvious enough to a lot of people there were calls for a return to the original design and in 2014 it was agreed to “upgrade” the border fence to standards first proposed in 2006.
The original design used lots of sensors, supported by 1,450 kilometers of fiber optic cables. The high-speed fiber optic lines allowed for real time monitoring of fifty radars (able to detect vehicles, pack animals and individual people) along with 78 monitoring towers equipped with optical day and night sensors (digital cameras) with zoom. The monitoring was done from eight command centers. From these centers sensor operators could quickly determine if someone was attempting to breach the border barrier and where. They could then order armed men to the trouble spot from 32 rapid response centers. There are ten vehicles equipped with surveillance equipment that can be sent to areas where trouble is expected, to make sure the trouble, if it shows up, is spotted and identified sooner.
Legal traffic goes through 38 crossings, which are heavily guarded and monitored. The foreign consultants that helped design the barrier warned the Saudis that the more effective the new border barrier was the more likely the personnel operating the system would be bribed. So the software used to run the monitoring and control system has safeguards and monitoring routines built in to detect and quickly report possible bribery activity. A similar barrier is being built along the Yemen border and all 5,000 kilometers of land borders will eventually have upgraded border security, now with some kind of fence and sensors.