The Border Guard is the most understudied force of Saudi Arabia. But in the 2000-2020 timeframe, militias hostile to the kingdom have grown at its borders (the Houthis in Yemen; the Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq). The Border Guard is also the force that has suffered the highest number of Saudi casualties in Yemen since 2015 and its trajectory is extremely intertwined with that of the Yemeni Border Guard. Two dynamics describe the evolution of the Saudi Border Guard, especially on the frontier with Yemen, since the outbreak of the “first Saada war” in 2004: the Border Guard has extended its operative duties and transformed in personnel composition.
The Saudi Border Guard now plays a rising role in internal security (with a rediscovered emphasis on maritime threats), since it is no longer exclusively focused on counter-smuggling activities. The Saudi Border Guard is also a “less local force” than in the past: it still works in the peripheries, but increasingly relying on non-indigenous personnel, thus unfamiliar with the borderland’s social and tribal fabric. The recruitment of locals has diminished, due to increasing Saudi mistrust of the loyalty of borderland tribes (who are mostly Ismaili or Zaydi Shia) and the second conflict with the Houthis begun in 2015.
In this evolving framework, Saudi forces along the frontier still show a hybrid nature, merging Border Guard soldiers with guards from tribes belonging to the Saudi-Yemeni borderland. Since 2004 Saudi Arabia’s border security has been governed by a series of security players supporting the Border Guard, including National Guard troops, Royal Saudi Land Forces (the army) and new regiments: as threats rise, the Saudi Border Guard is no longer the main frontier actor and a security fragmentation trend is visible.
The Saudi Border Guard: An Overview
In recent years, the Saudi Border Guard has increased active personnel, extended its duties and strengthened training activities. Founded in 1913 as the Coast Guard Authority, the General Directorate of the Border Guard (GDBG) falls under the Ministry of Interior (MoI). The Border Guard has headquarters in Riyadh plus nine commands/regions: Tabuk, Al Jouf, Northern Region, Eastern Region, Najran, Jizan, Asir, Makkah and Madinah. In the last five years, the number of active personnel in the Saudi Border Guard has increased from 10,500 (2016) to 15,000 (2020), according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In 2018, the Border Guard started to hire women for vacant military positions, with security inspector roles available in Riyadh, Jizan, Makkah, Northern Border and Tabuk.
Training Programs: Rising Attention for Maritime Borders
The Border Guard of Saudi Arabia has revealed capability limits in securing coastal and mountainous frontiers, relying progressively on military units and elite groups. In 2014, 30,000 Saudi regular forces were sent to the northern border as the “Islamic State” seized territory in Iraq; in 2015, special troops of the National Guard were deployed on the Saudi-Yemeni border after the Houthis’ coup in Sanaa. With regard to education and training, the United States is a critical partner for the Saudi Border Guard, which since 2008 has been included in the US military assistance program for Interior Ministry forces (“MoI-MAG”). Training is encompassed in the Saudi Border Guard Development Program (known as MIKSA) started in 2013, in combination with border fence construction and the upgrading of electronic surveillance systems. In 2019, a training program on civil dialogue was organized by the Saudi Border Guard at the Mohammed bin Nayf Academy for Maritime and Security Studies in Jedda: this four-day course involved 84 qualified male and female members, under the patronage of the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue. Despite its maritime origins, only the Houthis’ asymmetric warfare in the Red Sea pushed the Border Guard to refocus on maritime security after 2015. In 2019, the 9th international training course on combating insecurity in the maritime domain was held in Jedda, opened by the Director General of the Border Guard, Awwad bin Eid Al Balawi, who is a vice admiral. In 2020, experts and trainees of the Saudi Border Guard attended the regional training course to combat maritime threats and for maritime security hosted by the Mohammed bin Nayf Academy. In October 2020, the 2nd International Symposium of the Saudi Border Guard, co-organized with the State Border Service of Azerbaijan, is scheduled to discuss maritime border protection under the theme “Together […] for secured and safe land and maritime borders”.
The Houthi Variable on Borderland and Minorities
The Saudi Border Guard maintains a certain kinship connection with the geographical and tribal territory in which operates, especially along the Saudi-Yemeni frontier. But it doesn’t represent a “force of the peripheries”, especially after the Houthis gained power in Yemen. As the kingdom’s borderlands mostly host Saudi minorities (Twelver Shia in the eastern region; Shia Ismailis and Zaydis in the south), the Border Guard presents some of the dynamics of exclusion or under-representation applied to the army or the National Guard. On the frontier, the rise of the Houthis acted like a game-changer also for the Border Guard. Indeed, since the early 2000s the Saudis have progressively shifted their approach from a borderland policy, based on shared interests and patronage relations with tribes, to a security-first border policy of incremental militarization. The Jedda border Treaty, signed between Saudi Arabia and Yemen (2000), accelerated this paradigm change, provoking the resentment of many borderland tribes who found themselves suddenly divided by a political, but not human, border.
Border Security Governance: Still Hybrid Forces with Evolving Security Structures
In this framework, the Saudi Border Guard faces two parallel insurgencies, which in most cases are distinct from one another: the Houthis’ fight against the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia, plus the struggle of borderland tribes against the frontier and the building of a physical fence by the kingdom. From 2000 onwards, Saudi-Yemeni border security governance can be seen as divided into four phases: for each of them, Saudi Arabia has reorganized border security structures, with a central or auxiliary role for the Border Guard. 1) Informal security with borderland tribes (until 2000): before the Jedda Treaty, the Saudis opted for security arrangements with borderland tribes, whose members were formally included in the Saudi Border Guard or cooperated informally as part of tribal guards. 2) Trans-border cooperation and security formalization (2000): after the Jedda Treaty, Saudi Arabia and Yemen established a joint Border Guard made up of locals and units were deployed on each side of the border, thus formalizing previous and informal security arrangements with borderland tribes. 3) Militarization and Sectarianization (2004-2018): the joint Saudi-Yemeni Border Guard fractured along the Saada “segment” of the frontier due to the conflict with the Houthis. Yemeni remnants of the Border Guard still loyal to the government started to operate from Saudi territory against the Northern insurgents; the Saudi Border Guard directly fought the Houthis during the “sixth Saada war” (2009). When the Saudis intervened in Yemen in 2015, special forces of the army and especially of the National Guard were deployed at the frontier to support the Border Guard. The Saudi Border Guard – like the other units positioned in the area – relied less on Ismaili and Zaydi borderland tribes, thus preventing potential dissent, while continuing to recruit from Najran’s Sunni tribes as rear-guards. On the other side, the Yemeni Border Guard, mainly supported by Riyadh, was staffed with Sunni recruits from outside borderland areas such as Taiz and Ibb: border security governance entered a period of militarization and sectarianization. Many Saudi border villages were also evacuated and empty houses demolished to prevent creation of safe havens for insurgents: the border area is severely hit by Houthis’ raids, rocket artillery and missiles (as in the case of Najran city), fired from the Yemeni territory. 4) A variety of security players besides the Border Guard (since 2018 ): since the Saudi-Yemeni border has become a territory of permanent violence, the Saudi Border Guard reacted by increasing out-of-borderland recruitment. Further military forces were deployed at the frontier: among them, the newly-established Al Afwaj regiment (under the MoI, led by General Fahad Saeed Al Qahtani, of a prominent Ismaili tribe of Jizan and Asir), began security patrols in 2019 in mountainous areas to fight intrusions, weapons and drug smuggling.
Nurturing a Patriotic Narrative
In the last decade, the violent instability of the Saudi-Yemeni frontier has become a catalyst for the kingdom’s top-down patriotic message: the Saudi Border Guard is now part of this “militarized nationalism” mood. In 2017, the 1st symposium of the Saudi Border Guard was titled “A homeland that we don’t protect …we don’t deserve to live in it”. An uncounted number of Saudi soldiers, included Border Guards, have fallen since 2009 due to the long-lasting conflict with the Houthis. Taking part in the Janadriya National Festival for Heritage and Culture in 2017 (organized by the National Guard), the Border Guard “dedicated a corner to display pictures and information about the men who gave their lives for their country”. The official website of the Saudi Border Guard does not provide an updated list of the “martyrs” who died serving on the border. However, the reported names all come from the Jizan, Najran and Asir commands, as over half of the enlisted soldiers came from the southwest of Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the Saudi Council of Ministers established compensation funds for fallen and injured soldiers and their families, and King Salman provided extra-month pay for troops stationed at the frontier. As the war in Yemen drags on, the Saudi Border Guard is also part of the official patriotic engine, although it has become less local and more sectarian in recruitment choices.
 Which are totally estimated in “hundreds each year”.
 Occurred in Yemen’s upper north, when Yemeni army and auxiliary militias fought the Houthis.
 The borderland encompasses agricultural areas neighbouring the Red Sea (Hajja in Yemen and Jizan in Saudi Arabia), as well as provinces with harsh mountains and eastward the desert: Asir and Najran in Saudi Arabia, Saada and al Jawf in Yemen.
 The Saudis carried-out a first military intervention against the Houthis in 2009 during the “sixth Saada war”.
 For instance, the tribal confederation of the Khawlan bin ‘Amr was physically divided by the Saudi-Yemeni border agreed in 1934 (Taif Agreement) and definitely established in 2000. Most of its tribes now belong to the Yemeni state, while others fall into the Saudi territory (as the Fayfa, who is engaged in guarding the Saudi side of the border).
 Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict, Oxford University Press, 2017, p.84.
 Lisa Lenz, The Yemeni Border Guard: Roles and Interests of the Yemeni Border Tribes in Securing the Yemeni-Saudi Border, paper presented at the workshop “Yemen's Living Heritage: Tribes and Tribalism into the 21st Century”, 14-15 February 2018, Institute for Social Anthropology, Austrian Academy of Sciences.
 International Institute for Strategic Studies-The Military Balance, 2016.
 I am especially grateful to Ahmed Nagi for sharing comments on local recruitment.