"The government is thinking of building an electrified fence along the whole border with Iraq in case things go really badly in Iraq, and it starts falling apart," a Saudi security adviser said on condition of anonymity because the government hasn’t made any official announcement about the border plans. However, Saudi authorities have admitted that they are devising plans to strengthen the country’s border defenses. "We are currently conducting a study on technical defense systems which we can use to beef up security measures along the border," Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told the daily Al-Riyadh.
The Saudi border with Iraq lies mostly in the desert. A 20-foot-tall sand berm along its entire length provides the first line of defense. Parallel to that is a second berm and a barbed wire fence, with a six-mile-wide no-man's land separating the two barriers. Despite the fortified barriers and the extensive electronic surveillance by Saudi border guards, who use motion detectors and night-vision cameras, some American officials claim that fighters have been sneaking across the Saudi border into Iraq to join the Iraqi resistance. But a top European diplomat accused the Americans of not doing enough to secure Iraq’s borders. “We're impressed with what the Saudis are doing. The problem is with the Americans in Iraq. The American-controlled side of the Iraqi border is less secure because they don't have enough troops deployed there."
A recent study, based on government data and conducted by Saudi defense analyst Nawaf Obaid, found that the Saudi kingdom has spent 1.8 billion doll to secure its border with Iraq since 2004. "But this amount has been mostly for the deployment of additional troops on the border and not for actual physical defenses," Obaid said.
In the report, titled "Meeting the Challenge of a Fragmented Iraq: A Saudi Perspective," Obaid calls for the formation of a permanent border security committee to tackle cross-border issues between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. "One of the most critical tasks facing such a committee [is to strengthen] security on the Iraqi side of the border. It is in the interests of both Saudi Arabia and Iraq to confront challenges such as smuggling and terrorist infiltration that an insecure border presents," he wrote.
One of Saudi Arabia’s major concerns is that Iraq’s sectarian violence may spread to the kingdom and inflame tensions between its Sunni Muslims and the minority Shia community. "The Saudis are afraid of what may come out of Iraq in the future, because of the threat of Al Qaeda infiltrators and Shia fighters coming across the border," said Faris Bin Hizam, a Saudi reporter and specialist on Al Qaeda. "I see a very difficult future for the whole region as it's not only Saudi Arabia that fears a Shia uprising, but other Gulf countries, Jordan, and Egypt as well."
The Saudi Foreign Minister recently expressed concerns that events in Iraq were spiraling out of control. “Civil war is a war between civilians and there is already war between civilians," Prince Saud al-Faisal recently said at a British-Saudi conference.
"The threat of break-up in Iraq is a huge problem for the countries of the region, especially if the fighting is on a sectarian basis. This type of fighting sucks in other countries," he warned.
Prince Saud's comments echoed warnings issued last week by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak but contrasted with the optimistic statements about Iraq's future often made by American and British officials. In response to the Saudi warnings, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said: "I do not believe there is a civil war in Iraq. There is a high level of sectarian violence but also great restraint shown by Shia leaders".
Saudi Arabia also believes that its border with Yemen poses a great risk. The 900-mileborder with Yemen has long been a transit point for fighters as well as smugglers of weapons and drugs. Running through mountains in the west into Saudi Arabia's barren Empty Quarter in the east, the border with Yemen has been difficult to patrol and impossible to seal off completely. In an attempt to control the porous border, Saudi Arabia started building a fence but was forced to suspend the project in 2004 after strong protests from the Yemeni government.
"The Saudi government has a habit of overspending on security, and the Yemeni fence project will cost upwards of over 10 billion doll once it is finished," says Ali al-Ahmad, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Saudi opposition think tank in Washington. He also says that the security fence along the Yemeni border has failed to stop weapons, drugs, fighters, and illegal workers from "flooding" into the Saudi Kingdom.
Ahmad also believes that the Yemeni border poses a greater risk than the Iraqi because the populated border with Iraq is easier to protect, lending itself to electronic and visual surveillance methods, which are cheaper than a new fence. Bin Hizam agrees, saying that the length of the Iraqi border makes building an electrified fence along the entire length of it economically unviable. However, Western security and construction firms are ready to execute the project. "A consortium of British, French, and American firms are interested in bidding for a contract to improve border security," the European diplomat confirmed.