Amid mounting regional tensions in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has welcomed US forces back onto its territory “to raise the level of cooperation in the defence of regional security and stability in the region and to ensure peace,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
The news agency cited a source in the Saudi Defence Ministry confirming Riyadh’s decision to receive hundreds of US troops in the framework of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the US.
Confirmation also came from across the Atlantic. Citing two US defence officials, the US network CNN reported that the Prince Sultan Air Base east of Riyadh was being prepared to receive around 500 troops and that a number of troops and support personnel “are already on site with initial preparations being made for a Patriot missile defence battery as well as runway and airfield improvements.”
The officials added that the US “plans to be able to fly stealth, fifth-generation F-22 jets and other fighters from the base.”
The Saudi decision to invite the US military into the country comes amid weeks of spiralling tensions in the Gulf between the US and Iran. In addition to the recent tit-for-tat downing of each other’s drones,
Washington has also accused Tehran of attacking oil tankers and other commercial ships belonging to various countries in the Straits of Hormuz.
Iran has denied the accusations. In another dimension of the escalation, the UK and Iran have seized one another’s oil tankers and London has said that it is coordinating militarily with Washington in the Gulf in order to confront the “Iranian threats.”
Washington withdrew its forces from the richest Arab oil-exporting nation in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the regime of former president Saddam Hussein.
Most of the troops, which had been stationed in Saudi Arabia since 1991 (after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the previous year) were transferred to the Udeid base in Qatar, which currently hosts 10,000 troops. Another 25,000 US troops are distributed across Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered.
In a statement alluding to Iran, US Central Command said that the movement of forces to Saudi Arabia “provides an additional deterrent and ensures our ability to defend our forces and interests in the region from emergent, credible threats”.
Iranian media close to supreme leader Ali Khamenei have called the US troop movements an “occupation” and charged that the US is not interested in ensuring genuine security in the Gulf.
Some analysts in Washington have described the move as a sign of how close relations between Riyadh and Washington are despite the objections in some Congressional quarters over certain aspects of their government’s relationship with Riyadh.
US-Saudi relations remained strong from the end of World War II to the 11 September attacks masterminded by Saudi-born Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said on his Twitter account that his country does not want war with Iran but warned that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil-exporter, would defend itself and its interests “with all force and determination.”
According to international military reports, Saudi Arabia holds an edge over Iran in air forces and combat training. This factor means that a military confrontation between the two sides could last much longer than either might calculate.
Saudi commentator Khaled Al-Dakhil believes that neither side wants a war in the Gulf. “Neither Iran, which isn’t strong enough to fight the US, nor the US, which wants stability in the energy markets [wants war],” he said.
“But Iran won’t stop undermining the stability and security of the region because it calculates that there is no real risk of war.”
He said the problem with Iran was not essentially a military one. “It is a political/security problem because Iran infiltrates many Arab countries using its sectarian proxies.
Tehran says it doesn’t want war, but it is contributing to the war against the Syrian people through its support for a murderer like [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad, and against the Yemeni people through its support for the Houthis. The Iranian role in Iraq and Lebanon is obvious.”
Saudi Arabia leads an Arab Coalition committed to supporting the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Iran denies that it supports the Ansar Allah, as the Houthi Movement is officially called.
The battle lines in Yemen have remained largely unchanged since the Arab Coalition’s initial victories in 2015 and 2016. Thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed as a direct consequence of the protracted warfare that has driven the poorest Arab country to the brink of famine, according to UN humanitarian relief agencies.
On the other hand, Iran has made no secret of its support for the Syrian president against his opponents since the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution that quickly degenerated into a civil war that has killed and wounded hundreds of thousands, driven millions from their homes and wrought at least $100 billion in infrastructural and economic damage.
The UAE, the second-largest contributor to the Arab Coalition, recently announced its decision to partially withdraw its forces from some of the battle fronts in Yemen.
Abu Dhabi gave no reasons for this decision, but Arab media have attributed it to the mounting tensions in the Gulf that have contributed to riveting the attention of some countries on that issue to the exclusion of others.
The same focus is cited as the basis for the Saudi decision to invite US troops back to the country after 15 years.
Popular sensitivities in Saudi Arabia are not as averse to US troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia as they were in the past. Many Saudi intellectuals who had once opposed the policies of their government are now among its most ardent supporters.
“In the 1990s, nationalists and Islamists objected to the presence of foreign forces on Saudi soil. Today, the opposition has declined because the Iranian danger has become so clear,” Al-Dakhil said.
Referring to the final communique of the Islamic Summit that was held in Mecca in June, he noted that the majority of Islamic nations urge calm in the Gulf and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries and oppose Iranian practices that run counter to these principles.
“Riyadh can’t possibly control 57 states, many of which have huge oil resources of their own or secularist outlooks. But Iranian practices speak for themselves,” Al-Dakhil said.
Riyadh had called for two emergency summits, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and an Arab Summit, to convene at the same time as the ordinary Islamic Summit in Mecca in order to discuss “the Iranian threats against Arab states.”
Analysts believe that pressure on Tehran in the form of Western forces deployed in the Gulf could push it to sit down at the negotiating table. Washington is pressuring Iran to reach a more comprehensive agreement than the one it signed with the P5+1 Group of nations at the time of the former US Obama administration.
“More comprehensive,” according to Al-Dakhil, means an agreement that will cover not just Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, but also the Iranian political system and its militia extensions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Apparently, the Arabs will settle for nothing less than a Tehran that has had its wings thoroughly clipped.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: US forces return to Saudi Arabia