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Saudi Arabia: U.S. To Downscale Its Military Presence

U.S. and Saudi officials have agreed the United States will substantially cut the size of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia. The move could ease anti-U.S. sentiment in the kingdom, where the public has long been unhappy over the continuing presence of American troops since the 1991 Gulf War, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that Washington will downscale its military presence at the joint U.S.-Saudi Prince Sultan air base, southeast of the capital Riyadh. Rumsfeld made the announcement to reporters at the air base yesterday as he visited the kingdom. The top U.S. defense official is on a swing through the Gulf that took him to Iraq today. "We do intend to maintain a continuing and healthy relationship with the Saudis. We look forward to exercises and training and working with them on their military, but we will have the opportunity to move some [U.S.] forces out."

The Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, confirmed his government's agreement with the step at a joint press conference with Rumsfeld in Riyadh. He said the end of the Iraq war had concluded the need for Washington to use the base to mount air patrols over Iraq's southern no-fly zone. He said that meant "there is no need for [the U.S. and British forces flying the patrols] to remain."

The precise scale of the downsize has yet to be announced but it is likely to substantially reduce the force from the level of 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers reached during the recent Iraq war. That level was almost twice the usual U.S. force at the base during peacetime.

Analysts say that the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia -- which is almost entirely concentrated at the air base -- will now drop from thousands of soldiers to just hundreds. Those remaining will mainly be engaged in maintaining the base's high-tech infrastructure and in routine training of Saudi air forces.

Andrew Brooks, an air power specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the U.S. and Saudi governments jointly invested some $1 billion to make the Prince Sultan air base into a regional command-and-control center for U.S. forces. The base was inaugurated just a few years ago and was used to command the air war over Afghanistan. Now, Brooks said, the closure of the base is a measure of how much U.S.-Saudi relations have been redefined by the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"It isn't that long since Prince Sultan was inaugurated as the command post and within a year or two it has been downgraded and almost, you know, that's it, forget it. And what's happened in two years, the only thing I can think of, meaningfully, is 9/11, that's changed it completely," Brooks said.

The 11 September attacks strained U.S.-Saudi relations partly because 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a radical Saudi Islamist opposed to the Saudi ruling family, cited the U.S. military presence in the Muslim holy land of Mecca and Medina as one of the group's primary motives in attacking the United States. Another motive was U.S. support of Israel and of the Gulf's ruling families.

In the wake of the 11 September attacks, some U.S. opinion makers called for dramatically reducing the United States' political and trade links with Saudi Arabia. That advice was rejected by U.S. President George W. Bush, who sees Riyadh as a valuable ally. But it sparked a war of words between the two countries which highlighted the extent of Saudi popular sentiment against the U.S. troops and the urgency of addressing it.

The United States has maintained a military presence on Saudi soil since the 1991 Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia was the staging ground for the coalition that evicted Iraq from Kuwait.

In recent months, U.S.-Saudi relations worsened further over Riyadh's refusal to let Washington use its soil to launch attacks to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Washington was forced to develop an alternative command-and-control center at Al-Udeid air base in Qatar and spent millions of dollars to make it operational in just a few months time.

Brooks said that the Qatar air base now offers the United States a more stable home in the region: "Qatar is perfectly [suitable], the geography is just as good, the convenience is just as good, you've got a great sea port, the whole regime is much more supportive, there are not that many folk living in Qatar for starters. You haven't got a huge mass [as people.] And you haven't got all the Muslim dimension of Medina and all that, which basically makes it more difficult to be in Saudi Arabia."

The analyst says that U.S. military personnel and contractors will now retain a residual presence at the Prince Sultan air base to keep it in operational shape should a new regional crisis encourage Washington to seek to use it again.

But, for now, U.S. officials are stressing that they have already moved to Qatar and that -- as far as Washington and Riyadh are concerned -- the problem of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia is solved.

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Dave Nichols told reporters traveling with Rumsfeld that "we have already switched, as of yesterday [to Qatar] " and that the bulk of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia should be out within the next few months.

He said that the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan would remain wired but that most of its computers would be moved to the neighboring emirate and that "we want to be fully out of here by the end of summer."