The crisis in the Gulf raises a fundamental question concerning the utter inability of Saudi Arabia to defend itself. Why is it that a country such as Syria, with a comparable population and considerably fewer resources, can pose a credible military deterrent, while a richer Saudi Arabia, which has spent billions of dollars for arms, has to scramble and request the aid of friendly nations to protect it from Iraqi aggression? The answer lies in the violent history of the country and the sorry state of military politics in developing societies.

The Saudi state is the product of a historic struggle between the two major communities of Arabia: the Bedouins, or nomadic tribes, and the Hadar, or settled groups. From time immemorial, the Bedouins, who developed a strong martial culture, preyed on the Hadar and pillaged their villages and caravans whenever the latter failed to pay an acceptable tribute to their more powerful Bedouin neighbors. This "nomadic order" lasted for a long time, and all Hadari attempts to stem Bedouin hegemony failed until, under the leadership of King Abdulaziz, the Hadar were able to subdue the Bedouins and end their hegemony earlier in this century, and the Saudi state was firmly established.

By reviving the powerful Wahhabi ideology, which preached a puritanical form of Sunni Islam, King Abdulaziz was able to unify the disparate Hadari community under his leadership. He then proceeded successfully to take on the Bedouins by ideological subversion (conversion to Wahhabism) and outright military confrontation. By 1930 the Hadari coalition of King Abdulaziz had successfully broken the back of Bedouin resistance. Subsequently, the king systematically proceeded to disarm the Bedouins, for he very much appreciated that so long as Bedouin proclivity to war was not checked, the new order, like previous attempts at unification and imposition of central authority, could not last for long. By commanding the fervent loyalty of the Hadar, and with the help of the oil income which started to trickle in during the late 1930s, King Abdulaziz succeeded in essentially demilitarizing most of Saudi society. The initial policy of disarming the Bedouins for the sake of security was maintained by Abdulaziz's successors and eventually extended to the whole society as this policy was expanded to include the Hadari community.

This pragmatic policy ensured the stability of the state by depriving the chronically rebellious Bedouin tribes of the means to launch raids. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia today, the government also felt it was necessary to demilitarize the whole state, and deliberately avoided building a strong or large army. The Saudi leadership watched with horror as Arab civilian governments, one after another, were overthrown by their armies (e.g., Egypt 1952; Iraq 1958). The Saudi population, too, was probably not too unhappy about the weakness of the Saudi military as the bloody behavior of the emerging Arab military dictatorships struck terror in the hearts of most Saudis.

The first serious military challenge to the new Saudi state came in the early 1960s with Egyptian intervention in Yemen. The Egyptians, ostensibly motivated by the revolutionary zeal of Arabism but more likely coveting the oil fields of Arabia, launched several attacks on Saudi Arabia. It became clear that the new kingdom could no longer afford to be without a military. In response to the Egyptian menace, the Saudis made tentative plans to build up their armed forces.

The oil boom that started in the 1970s allowed Saudi Arabia to spend extraordinary amounts of money on its military programs. Yet fear of a militarization of the society discouraged any attempt to build a large army. Instead, the Saudis spent their money on building a relatively strong air force and a huge infrastructure, which is today able to accommodate the large influx of foreign troops. Iraq's occupation of Kuwait rudely awakened the Saudis to the painful consequences of these policies.

The general attitude of Saudi Arabia today is that the country has been lucky this time to have a coalition of forces led by the United States willing to help in its defense. The knowledge that Saudi Arabia's resources will always tempt some of its neighbors, coupled with a deep suspicion about the reliability of outside assistance in the long term, has prompted the Saudis to reconsider their attitude toward the establishment of a credible military deterrent. While it is not a primary motivation, there is also a feeling that a stronger Saudi Arabia would contribute to the stability of the post-Saddam Middle East by partially offsetting Israeli (and to a lesser extent, Iranian) military dominance in the area.

Despite potential danger, the old policy appears destined to change, for the old fears of Bedouin anarchy are no longer valid. The nomads have mostly been settled and their tribal organization considerably weakened. The original Wahhabi policy of ''reforming'' them into good Hadaris has succeeded.

The fear of military intervention in politics, a constant concern in practically all developing societies, is obviously more legitimate. Yet we are familiar with some examples where the military has kept its loyalty to the leadership. The ability of King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco to build strong military machines and retain their loyalty are cases in point. There is no reason why, with an intelligent mix of tight civilian control and the introduction of general political reform, the Saudis cannot succeed in building a credible military capability and maintaining its loyalty.

At any rate, the leadership has recently reiterated its willingness to introduce political institutionalization by promising the promulgation of a constitution and the establishment of a consultative assembly. If such promises are actually implemented and not ignored like earlier ones, the Saudis, besides enjoying one of their long overdue and most fundamental of political rights, can actually enhance the loyalty and stem the possible politicization of an augmented military.

The writer is a Saudi lawyer living in Riyadh.