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Middle East: Does Riyadh Want U.S. Military To Leave The Kingdom?

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Since the 11 September terror attacks, the United States and Saudi Arabia have said relations are as good as ever. But a new report in the U.S. media suggests otherwise -- and that Riyadh may ask America to withdraw troops stationed in the country since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Washington dismisses the report, but the old allies are both under pressure at home to alter their relationship.

Washington, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One of Osama bin Laden's stated goals has always been to force the "infidel" Americans to withdraw their military from his native Saudi Arabia -- Islam's holy land and home of its two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.

In a video broadcast a few weeks after the September attacks on the U.S., the man Washington blames for those strikes repeated his demand that the U.S. leave the air force base it has held in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Bin Laden also called on the world's Muslims to wage a "jihad," or holy struggle, against America.

More than three months later, bin Laden is believed to be either dead or on the run after U.S. military power helped drive his former Taliban hosts from power in Afghanistan. But despite the American success in unraveling his Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, is bin Laden's dream of driving the U.S. from Saudi Arabia about to come true?

According to "The Washington Post" newspaper on 18 January, it may be. The paper, quoting anonymous senior Saudi officials, said Riyadh is seriously considering asking the U.S. to pull out of its Prince Sultan base, which Washington has used to direct much of the Afghan war. The newspaper says the Saudi government is under pressure from an anti-U.S. public to dissociate itself from explicit links to Washington.

Saudi Arabia, the report adds, has also grown uneasy over U.S. efforts to keep Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in check, including possibly using military force in a bid to oust him. The article says the U.S. presence has become a domestic political liability for the Saudi leadership, but that if the U.S. does pull out, it would still be able to re-occupy the base during a crisis.

The U.S. has never publicly considered abandoning the Saudi base, which now has about 5,000 American military personnel stationed there. Washington says the base is vital to its ability to defend its Gulf allies and Saudi Arabia -- the world's top oil supplier -- from aggression by Iraq or Iran.

On 18 January, the Bush administration reiterated its traditional position.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said relations with Riyadh are fine and that Bush spoke recently with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to thank him for his support in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. As for the story in "The Washington Post," Fleischer said: "I can't comment on anything that people don't put their name on. But I'm not aware of any contacts that anybody named 'anonymous' has had with the United States government, let alone anybody who has a Saudi name [has had] with the United States government, suggesting that it's time for the United States to leave."

Today's "International Herald Tribune" quotes senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as saying Washington has received no request from Saudi Arabia to withdraw U.S. forces.

However, Rumsfeld also noted that how relations between the two countries evolve in the future "is up to the Saudis," while Powell said the U.S. is "constantly reviewing" its presence in the region. Powell said it "wouldn't be unusual" for Washington to be holding talks with Riyadh about how American troops are distributed in the country.

Britain's "Financial Times" today quotes unnamed Western diplomats in the region as saying the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are, indeed, due to begin talks about "adjustments" in the U.S. military presence in the kingdom. The paper also quotes Saudi officials as saying there have been no demands on the U.S. to leave, but confirming Powell's comment about an ongoing review of the American presence.

However, the reports appear certain to add fuel to the already hot debate on the state of U.S.-Saudi relations. The Saudis have been criticized in the U.S. media and by some American politicians since the terrorist attacks. Riyadh strongly condemned those attacks on its ally the U.S., but the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis sparked criticism of the royal family's internal policies.

The critics call Saudi Arabia an oppressive society that allows anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism to breed out of control, in part to deflect its peoples' discontent with the Saudi government itself. They note that suspected terrorist mastermind bin Laden, who has said he also wants to see the Saudi royal family fall, is the kind of person such a system produces.

American commentators are also offended by the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. And they point to the case of a female U.S. military member who has filed a suit against the Pentagon because it makes U.S. servicewomen in Saudi Arabia wear scarves to cover their faces out of deference to Saudi customs.

Relations between Washington and Riyadh are also complicated by continued strife in Israel, America's chief ally in the region. Saudi Arabia upbraided the U.S. in November for not doing enough to address the plight of the Palestinians.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia has been stung by the U.S. media criticism, which President George W. Bush has been keen to temper with frequent public appreciation for Riyadh's support in the war on terrorism.

But the White House is beginning to face more than media criticism over the Saudi-American relationship. A leading senator recently urged the U.S. to withdraw its military from Saudi Arabia. Carl Levin, a Democrat from the state of Michigan, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin said Riyadh seems to feel that the base is a favor to America, when in reality it's for Saudi Arabia's defense.

Joseph McMillan is a former Pentagon official responsible for Saudi affairs. He told a January forum at Washington's Middle East Institute that both nations have some serious questions to ask themselves as they struggle to find a new footing for their post-11 September relationship: "The question I keep asking myself is: How long will the populations of both countries continue to tolerate an arrangement where we have something on the order of 20,000 to 25,000 U.S. people deployed in the Gulf at any one time, doing a mission that the last couple of administrations have not explained very effectively to the American public? And on the Saudi side: How long [is] the Saudi public, which is becoming increasingly aware that there's this open-ended foreign presence in the kingdom...going to keep on tolerating that?"

McMillan also says he believes Washington and Riyadh no longer share a strategic vision for the Gulf region -- that Saudi Arabia no longer thinks there's a reason to defend itself against Iraq: "When you have a head of state whose official title is 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,' you're pretty politically vulnerable when you have to explain all the time how it is that you can't defend the holy places without the help of the 'infidels.'"

Saudi Arabia now has limited military capability, which McMillan says would not be enough on its own to repel an Iraqi attack. That ability would require the virtual militarization of Saudi society, which McMillan says is not in U.S. or Saudi interests.

The U.S. also maintains a military presence in other Gulf states, such as Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait, which America helped liberate from Iraqi forces in 1991.

But military experts argue that the Prince Sultan base, which was set up after a terrorist attack on the original U.S. base in Saudi Arabia killed 19 American servicemen, is virtually irreplaceable. They say it offers "strategic depth" in the region, storage room for heavy military equipment, and that its desert location provides isolation from attack.

Other analysts, however, believe that if it is a vital U.S. interest to support the Saudi government, then Washington should do everything it can to deflect internal Saudi criticism against the royal family. And that would mean, the thinking goes, even going so far as to pull U.S. troops out of the country.