50 years of the British Military Mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard: a little history

Prince Charles and Camilla have recently been in Saudi Arabia as part of their nine-day tour of the Middle East. On Saturday 16th March Charles marked the fiftieth anniversary of the British Military Mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

Britain’s military links with Saudi Arabia are very long-standing. The SANGCOM deal with the National Guard, now being investigated by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, was first signed in 1978. BAE’s Al Yamamah deal has its origins in the mid-1960s. But another, little-known but highly important, part of Britain’s relations with Saudi Arabia is the British Military Mission to the National Guard. In this article I set out a little bit of the history behind it (and have included the relevant file references from the British National Archives).

In the early 1960s, the Saudi Royal Family were worried they might be overthrown in a military coup. This had been the fate of regimes in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958) and Yemen (1962).

In February 1963, Kamal Adham, the brother-in-law of Prince Feisal, the power behind the throne, asked the Foreign Office for advisers for the “White Army”. The “White Army”, also known as the National Guard, was run by Prince Abdullah, who is now the King of Saudi Arabia.

Britain had only restored relations with Saudi Arabia, severed during the Suez crisis, one month earlier. Frank Brenchley was Britain’s Chargé d’affaires in Jedda. He told London there was a “genuine military need to improve training of Abdullah’s White Army”. He said that as the “White Army is essential body-guard of the Royal Family, supplying advisers for it would be an additional commitment to the present regime”. Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home approved a mission to study the feasibility of Adham’s request.

Brigadier Jim Hope-Thomson led the mission, accompanied by Major Nigel Bromage. They arrived in Jedda on Tuesday 19th March 1963 and after visiting Riyadh left Saudi Arabia ten days later.

Back in London, Hope-Thomson wrote his report. He said

“the Saudi Arabian National Guard, sometimes known at the ‘White Army, are a paid irregular force of Bedouin, available to deal with any threat to the internal security of the Kingdom…The National Guard as such was formed in 1953 by the present King Saud when he succeeded his father to the Saudi Arabian throne”.

The National Guard, he said was, “a factor of considerable importance relative to the security and balance of power within the country”. Kamal Adham told Hope-Thomson and Bromage that “the National Guard was for internal security in support of the régime, and only for that”.


“for military operations of any length or severity they would be virtually useless. They may well be capable of crushing an internal uprising in its initial stages, not involving a direct clash with the army”.

He continued

“the National Guard live a life of truly oriental cloth…no training appears to be done, and when at home, the men idle away their days gossiping and drinking coffee an utopian state free from the normal day to day tasks of Bedouin life”.

He told the Foreign Office that the two other major power centres in the country, the “urban proletariat” and the regular army, “must be regarded as susceptible to Nasserite influence and are therefore, from the Saudi family point of view, suspect and undependable”.

Hope-Thomson recommended that a maximum of four regular officers on secondment should be sent to the National Guard. He argued the aim should be “the improvement of relations with the Saudi Government and the opening of a new source of intelligence” (FO 371/168890).

In May 1963, Douglas-Home told Prime Minister Harold Macmillan “it is clear that any successor regime in Saudi Arabia would almost certainly be worse for our position in the Persian Gulf” and that it was in Britain’s interests to advise the “White Army” (PREM 11/4447).

The advisers could also collect intelligence. Diplomats told Home “the supply of advisers would fill an intelligence gap. The Americans themselves regard this as most important” (FO 371/168891). Hope-Thomson recommended that the advisers “should be instructed to pass intelligence through Her Majesty’s Embassy” in Jedda (FO 371/168890).

Macmillan approved the proposal for advisers Foreign Office Minister of State The Earl of Dundee informed the Cabinet on 23rd May 1963 that advisers had been made available to the National Guard to “reinforce the régime in Saudi Arabia against internal dissension” (CAB 128/37).

Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Timbrell was appointed the Head of the British Military Mission. His colleague was Nigel Bromage. In June 1963, Timbrell and Bromage presented their plan for the re-organisation of the National Guard (FO 371/168892). The plan “aimed “to produce a force which can safeguard the internal security of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom” (FO 371/168891).

On 7th August 1963, Timbrell returned to Saudi Arabia to take up his post, followed by Bromage on 17th September (FO 371/168892). This British Military Mission has now lasted fifty years.

In November 1966 Abdullah asked the British Military Mission to stay another 10 years. One diplomat commented that the officers “have contributed to the stability of the regime and have provided a useful source of intelligence: the two principal aims in mind when they were sent” (FO 371/185502). The Mission also helped build good relations between Britain and the Saudis. One Ministry of Defence official told Defence Secretary Denis Healey that Abdullah “is very close to the throne, occupies a position of considerable influence in the Kingdom and was believed to be principally responsible for the deposition of his eldest brother, King Saud” (WO 32/20242).

Though the British Government wanted the British Military Mission to help maintain the Saudi Royal Family in power over the years, behind the scenes they doubted the effectiveness of the National Guard.

Brigadier Roy Watson replaced Timbrell in October 1965. He wrote scathing reports to London about the National Guard and Abdullah. He said in one report

“it is unfortunate that the Emir insists on sending only ‘sons of sheiks and Emirs’ for training in England, in the belief that leadership is hereditary, and breeding will tell. The results so far have not borne out this belief”.

Watson was summoned to see Abdullah. Abdullah, Watson said, was

“not satisfied with precautions currently being taken for the protection of the King (despite the fact that a Royal Guard and a Special Branch exist for this purpose). The Emir asked what the National Guard could do to improve matters, and gave the Mission 30 minutes in which to work out a plan”.

Although a “tall order”, the Mission set up a Special Security Unit for Abdullah. A demonstration was organised so Abdullah could see its capabilities. Watson wrote

“the demonstration consisted of the passage of an imaginary VIP through an imaginary crowded street (patrolled by members of the special unit, in plain clothes) and the arrest of a would-be assassin. The Emir [Abdullah] was delighted, particularly since – having rather missed the point of the demonstration – he had spotted the evil-doer long before he was arrested. So delighted was the Emir that he ordered the demonstration to be repeated a few days later… he had invited a number of his brothers and numerous friends. When it was pointed out this would completely ruin the secrecy which had hitherto surrounded the special unit, the Emir replied that he appreciated this, but the demonstration would serve as a deterrent to anyone thinking of harming the King. The second demonstration… was an even greater success, the Emir this time having spotted the assassin long before his brothers The demonstration also included unarmed combat, and its conclusion was greeted with loud and prolonged applause by the spectators (some 500 of them)” (FCO 8/783).

In 1970 the SAS exercised with the National Guard (FCO 8/1754) and in 1971 provided training (FCO 8/2125). Nonetheless the then British Ambassador told London “the Saudi Arabian National Guard may be in danger of becoming a ‘Notional Guard’” and “the National Guard is a paper tiger, and moreover the paper is very thin” (FCO 8/1915).

But the British Government has persisted and the British Military Mission still exists with its aim intact. In 2006, the Ministry of Defence said its “purpose is to provide advice and training assistance to the [Saudi Arabian National Guard] in order to promote regional and national stability. The [British Military Mission]’s objectives are to build [Saudi Arabian National Guard] capacity for Internal Security”.

And this was still the case more recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/...). On 14th March 2011 the National Guard sent scores of UK-made armoured personnel carriers into Bahrain. The armoured vehicles, marketed as Tacticas, were manufactured by BAE Systems Land Systems Division in Newcastle Upon Tyne with final assembly taking place in Belgium. The Saudi Ambassador to London, Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf Al-Saud, said the Saudis had “sent a brigade of specialised units to secure and protect critical Bahraini installations and infrastructure" and that “Saudi forces have not engaged in any security operations against Bahraini citizens” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics...). Nonetheless this no doubt freed up Bahraini security forces to carry out their campaign of violence and human rights abuses against protesters.
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Published on March 18, 2013 11:44
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