The UK’s secret military unit that answers to Saudi Arabian commanders
Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis- The UK military has a team of high-ranking soldiers embedded in the Saudi Arabian armed forces who are believed to be taking their orders from Saudi commanders, it can be revealed.
The British programme, details of which have long been kept secret from the British parliament and public, involves training the Saudis in “internal security”. Paid for by the Saudi regime – including the salaries and living costs of the British soldiers – the team’s role is controversial given the kingdom’s repressive political system.
It is also likely to raise questions since the British soldiers are embedded in a branch of the Saudi military that is involved in the devastating war in Yemen.
The British Military Mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (BMM SANG) trains the de facto protection force of the ruling House of Saud and was established in 1964.
An elite, 130,000-strong force with soldiers drawn from tribes loyal to the ruling dynasty, the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) is separate from the regular Saudi army. Its central role is to defend the regime from a coup.
The British government told parliament this March that the UK has 10 military personnel “embedded” in the SANG. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has told us that the number is now 11 personnel, who are believed to be based at the unit’s headquarters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The British government has repeatedly toldparliament that all UK military personnel in Saudi Arabia “remain under UK command and control”. An MOD spokesman further told us: “The British Military Mission is commanded by a British officer, who reports directly to the Ministry of Defence, in London.”
However, new information suggests that the chain of command on the ground is different.
‘Members of the Saudi National Guard’
The British embassy in Riyadh admitted in 2012 that the UK military officers involved in the mission “take their orders directly from His Royal Highness, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Cabinet Minister and Head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard”. Prince Miteb, the son of the late King Abdullah, was head of the SANG until 2017.
The admission came in an internal embassy publication, called Kingdom to Kingdom, intended for distribution within government. The British embassy even referred to the British soldiers as “members of the Saudi National Guard”, rather than advisers or trainers.
When presented with the document, the MOD told us the information is misleading.
However, we have also seen a 1983 document from the MOD entitled “Directive for the commander, British Military Mission to Saudi Arabian National Guard” stating that while the commander is formally answerable to the chief of defence staff in the UK, “members of BMM will ordinarily obey the orders of designated SANG superiors”.
Our understanding is that, although the formal chain of command may end in London, these British military personnel report on a day-to-day basis to their Saudi superiors, who are their effective commanders.
The MOD has also informed us that BMM SANG is a “loan service personnel” scheme. Such an arrangement is ordinarily described by the MOD as British soldiers being “embedded in a wide variety of training, educational and staff posts in the host nation’s armed forces”. Similarly, the MOD has previously stated that “UK embeds operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel, under that nation’s chain of command”.
However, when asked about this in relation to BMM SANG, the MOD told us that its previous statement was again misleading because it did not apply to all embed programmes.
British documents from 1963 when Britain and Saudi Arabia were arranging the BMM SANG programme show that the then commander of the National Guard, Prince Abdullah, wanted command and control over the British soldiers. Abdullah would go on to be king from 2005 to 2015.
A British file marked “Secret” outlined “Principles governing the operation of a mission” and stated that “Abdullah would probably welcome a large British mission taking over, under his overall authority,” giving him “practically all executive responsibility, including operational command”.
It adds, “It must be accepted by Her Majesty’s Government that, if an adviser or mission is sent at all, there must be no close or continuous restraint or direction from the United Kingdom on the adviser or head of mission”.
The resulting agreement, which established BMM SANG in 1964, has been secret for 55 years, but we have obtained an early version of it. The issue of British command and control is not stipulated in the document, which perhaps signals Prince Abdullah’s perceived desire for “operational command”.
The agreement notes only one eventuality in which the UK government must be consulted on how the soldiers are deployed. This is if they are to “take part in any active non-training operations undertaken by the armed forces of Saudi Arabia”.
A handwritten letter from Lieutenant Colonel Bruce-Merrie, a member of the British military mission in Riyadh, to the Foreign Office in London, dated 11 October 1975. Bruce-Merrie was caught smuggling British military training videos to Saudi Arabia in a diplomatic bag—a container protected by special legal status—for use by the Saudi Arabian National Guard. “If this is against the rules I apologise,” he writes. “The use of the diplomatic bag is a generous concession and I am personally very grateful for it”.
When the military mission began, UK personnel had “daily contact” with Abdullah, according to the British embassy in Riyadh.
Other British government files from the 1970s highlight the influence of the SANG commander over appointments to the British team. A document from 1973 shows the MOD wanted to replace the then British head of the military mission but decided against this since Abdullah “wanted him to stay on because of their personal relationship”.
The current head of the SANG, appointed in 2017, is Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz bin Mohammed bin Ayyaf Al Muqren whose father was one of the founders of the National Guard in the 1960s.
Training of the SANG is one of Britain’s key military programmes in support of Saudi Arabia. It sits alongside another secret programme also paid for by the Saudis and staffed by MOD personnel, known as Sangcom, which provides military communications equipment and training to the SANG and costs £2-billion.
On an official visit to Saudi Arabia in 2013, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the headquarters of the SANG in Riyadh to mark the 50th anniversary of the BMM SANG programme.
We can further reveal that the BMM SANG programme is paid for by the Saudi regime under a “black budget”, a term describing government funding for secret operations. Neither government has ever revealed the cost of the programme. Saudi funding levels remain “confidential to the two governments”, the MOD told us.
BMM SANG is not mentioned on the UK government website and UK embedded forces in Saudi Arabia are not disclosed in the MOD’s latest annual report.
Neither are the personnel involved with the military mission listed on any government website. We have learnt, however, that these teams are commanded by a brigadier who is supported by nine lieutenant-colonels, among other officers.
The government provides almost no information to parliament or the public on what BMM SANG does. In 2016, in response to a rare parliamentary question, Defence Minister Mike Penning described the mission as “providing mentoring and advice to the Saudi Arabian National Guard”. The MOD told us that the programme provides “targeted military advice and some training support”.
The British embassy has noted that this training has over the years “included artillery, engineers, armoured, infantry, signals… medics, logisticians, and close protection advisers”.
One former British commander of BMM SANG, Brigadier Nicholas Cocking – who led the mission from 1984 to 1991 – noted that his team included officers who “reflected various military disciplines from logistics to armoured and infantry and so on”, and that the programme was “responsible for more generalised training”. “We could turn our hands to almost anything,” he added.
‘Internal security’ and ‘riot control’
One reason for secrecy may be the controversial British support for the National Guard’s role in promoting “internal security”.
A British file from 1973 notes that the SANG’s role is “to fight with the army in defence of the kingdom and to maintain law and order within the kingdom”. Britain’s defence attaché to Saudi Arabia wrote in the same year that the SANG provides “counter-measures” in areas such as the oil-rich eastern province which are “vulnerable to sabotage and threats from dissident or subversive elements”.
The 2012 British embassy document stated that BMM SANG’s role “is to advise and assist the Guard in all counter-terrorism and internal security matters”.
A former member of the British military mission, an army officer who served in Saudi Arabia from 2009-12 and 2016-19, says on his Linkedin profilethat one of his roles was advising on “riot control” in addition to counter-terrorism. Ben Richards, who later became a defence attaché in Ghana, writes that his tasks in Saudi Arabia included “daily engagement with senior officials on transformation, training, development and equipment issues”.
British support for Saudi “internal security” goes beyond BMM SANG. A current British “special security adviser” to the Saudi Ministry of National Guard says that his role is “delivering counter-terrorist and internal security training and advice”. He adds that his role is also to advise Saudi officers “on all aspects of military capabilities, from procurement to continuous improvement” and “set the conditions for future reform”.
The largest part of the SANG being trained by Britain were previously known as “mujahadeen”, or holy warriors. A 1970 British government file notes, “The [British] training of mujahadeen NCO [non-commissioned officers] instructors has now been completed in the thirteen training centres set up for this purpose.”
In the mid-1970s, two thirds of the SANG were composed of such fighters who were described as “lightly armed and equipped, and after basic training only, are distributed in centres of population throughout the country”. The remaining third of the SANG were known as Fedayin, who were organised into infantry units with heavier weapons and equipment.
Advantages of the training mission
The SANG’s commander, Prince Abdullah, asked the British for training support in the early 1960s during a period when the Saudi royal family was worried about being displaced in a military coup. This had been the fate of other pro-Western regimes in the region, notably Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958 and Yemen in 1962.
One reason the British agreed to the Saudi request was that, “The ‘White Army’” – as the SANG was then known – “is the principal prop of the present Saudi regime, and any successor regime would be worse for our interests in the Gulf than the present one”, the foreign office noted in 1963. It added, “It is thus much to our interest that the ‘White Army’ should be efficient.”
Frank Brenchley, Britain’s chargé d’affaires in the kingdom, wrote that the SANG was the “bodyguard of the royal family” and that “supplying advisers for it would be an additional commitment to the present regime”.
Direct support to the Saudi king was also a feature of British training. In 1970, following a request from the SANG commander, the British army sent a training team to the SANG “to fit them for special duties in connection with the personal safety of HM the king”. The following year the SAS sent a four-member team to the SANG for “all aspects of bodyguard instruction”.
The British files offer other insights into the perceived advantages to having a military mission in Saudi Arabia. One, according to a War Office official in 1963, was that it would “would open a valuable new source of intelligence”. Another file notes “the value to Her Majesty’s Government of having a point of observation and influence so close to the centre of power in this country, and at no cost”.
Another official argued that the training team would help promote “sales of defence equipment”.
One of the few arguments offered against agreeing to provide the mission in the planning stage came from a foreign office official who suggested that “it would attract the criticism that we tend to support only reactionary regimes”.
The UK-Saudi agreement which governs the British Military Mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (BMM SANG) has been secret for 55 years. Here is an early version, termed a “Draft Exchange of Notes”. We understand the final version contained only small revisions to this draft.
A role in Bahrain and Yemen
British training of the SANG is contributing to so-called “internal security” elsewhere in the Gulf.
Members of the SANG were deployed to Bahrain in March 2011 to support the Bahraini regime in its crackdown on popular protests. The MOD later admitted, “It is possible that some members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard which were deployed in Bahrain may have undertaken some training provided by the British military mission.”
The MOD told us that the British military personnel embedded in the SANG are “absolutely not involved at all in Yemen”.
However, Brigadier Hugh Blackman, who was British Commander of BMM SANG from 2015 to 2017, the first two years of the Yemen war, has admitted that his services to the SANG included “advice to the National Guard at all levels of command… for the full spectrum of military operations on the southern Yemeni border”.
The nature of British advice to the SANG for its military operations in the Yemen conflict is not known.
The SANG has long been known to be active in the Yemen war both on the border and possibly inside Yemen. Earlier this year, for example, Colonel Kevin Lambert of the US military confirmed that the SANG was “executing combat operations in the Yemen conflict”.
The British government does not reveal the identities of BMM SANG personnel. However, the current commander of BMM SANG is believed to be Brigadier Charles Calder who was until recently defence adviser at the British High Commission in Nigeria, where Britain has a military team advisingNigerian forces on counter-insurgency operations against the terrorist group Boko Haram. Calder went straight from these operations to commanding BMM SANG in a Saudi Arabia at war in Yemen.
Calder’s predecessor, Brigadier Jackman, took up his position as commander of BMM SANG in June 2015, three months after Saudi Arabia began intervening in Yemen. Jackman came from the British embassy in Libya, where he was commander of the military training team there. He was charged with assisting the Libyan military with “the integration of former revolutionaries, and wider professionalisation of the institution”. Jackman subsequently planned and led the evacuation of all UK and entitled citizens from Libya.
Before that, Jackman had been a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards operating in Bosnia and Kosovo. He went on to command an armoured battle-group of 1,400 soldiers during the UK’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.