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SAUDI ARABIA: Withdrawl of U.S. Forces

Author: Sharon Otterman
May 2, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Will the departure of American forces improve U.S.-Saudi relations?

It should. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia had indicated even before the war in Iraq ended that it would benefit both sides if U.S. forces--mostly Air Force personnel--left the country when the threat from Saddam Hussein had ended. Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told The New York Times: "Our presence has become more of a burden than a benefit."

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Why was it a burden for the Saudis?

Antagonism toward the seemingly prolonged U.S. presence fed resentment and anger toward the kingdom's authoritarian government and fueled Islamic extremism. One of the chief grievances of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden was that "infidel" troops from the United States were present in Saudi Arabia, which contains Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

How long have U.S. forces been in Saudi Arabia?

The United States has operated a small military-training mission in Saudi Arabia since the 1950s. During the Cold War, Washington and the Saudi royal family expanded their close ties. The Saudis, who control about 25 percent of the world's oil reserves, were a source of petroleum, and the United States gave the kingdom security and military assistance.

When did the number of U.S. forces increase?

The U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia reached its height during the 1991 Gulf War, when some 550,000 coalition troops were based in the Saudi desert. Working with the Saudi military, they had two primary tasks: to protect Saudi oil fields from Iraqi troops who were already occupying Kuwait across the border, and to use Saudi soil as the launching pad for driving Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. U.S., Saudi, and other coalition air forces used bases in Saudi Arabia for the air campaign against Iraq.

What happened after the first Gulf War?

President George H.W. Bush promised Saudi Arabia's King Fahd that the troops would withdraw once the mission was over, but the war to free Kuwait became a campaign to contain Saddam. About 5,000 U.S. combat troops and air crews enforced the southern Iraqi "no-fly" zone--where Iraqi aircraft were banned--and helped defend Saudi Arabia from at least seven Saudi military bases.

Did the Saudis participate in the 2003 Iraq war?

No Saudi troops fought. And after months of prewar uncertainty, the Saudi government granted U.S. access to some of its military facilities. The number of U.S. forces in the kingdom doubled to 10,000, and the coalition air attacks were coordinated by U.S. commanders in the Prince Sultan airbase south of Riyadh, the capital. The Saudis granted over-flight rights to U.S. planes and missiles. And Saudi Arabia also reportedly provided U.S. Special Operations Forces secret staging grounds from which they mounted assaults into western Iraq. In another important move, the Saudis used their vast oil reserves to keep the world oil market stable during the war. The close cooperation was reported in the American press. But Saudi leaders, who faced strong domestic opposition to the war, repeatedly denied that they were allowing attacks from Saudi soil.

Where in the region will U.S. troops now be based?

Some 400 to 500 troops will remain in Saudi Arabia as part of the longstanding U.S. training mission with the Saudi Arabia National Guard. The air operations center will move to the $1 billion Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which was built in 1996 at Qatar's expense. The tiny nation, population 750,000, reportedly views the United States as its primary protector in the region. With the threat of Iraq gone, Washington is repositioning other forces in the region as well. Aircraft patrolling the northern no-fly zone from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, for example, have already been recalled to their home bases.

What problems did U.S. troops encounter in Saudi Arabia?

The main problem was terrorism. Terrorists attacked U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia twice in the 1990s. In 1995, a car bomb in the capital, Riyadh, killed seven people, including five U.S. servicemen. In June 1996, 19 U.S servicemen were killed and about 400 people wounded when a bomb exploded at a U.S. military residence called Khobar Towers near Dhahran, a major port on the Persian Gulf. U.S. troops were then moved to an isolated base in the Saudi desert. Even so, their presence was a flashpoint for domestic critics and generated political problems for Saudi rulers.

Another problem was that the Saudis placed increasing restrictions on U.S. forces operating on their soil, limiting, for example, their ability to fly attack missions from Saudi airbases. Some U.S. voices called for a "strategic alternative to Saudi Arabia;" in The Washington Post, a senior Saudi official replied that the United States had "overstayed its welcome."

A third problem was cultural. Some habits and practices of the young Americans scandalized religious Saudis; for their part, some U.S. troops resented the restrictions of a conservative Islamic monarchy where alcohol is banned and women's public role is severely limited.

Will the departure of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia reduce terrorism?

Many experts don't think so. The presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil was one of bin Laden's key gripes; now that they are leaving, anti-American extremism could conceivably diminish. But some terror experts say the issue of U.S. troops was symptomatic of a much deeper global battle for influence being waged by bin Laden and other fundamental Islamic terrorists. Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that "al-Qaeda's jihad against the West is much larger than just the situation in Saudi Arabia."

Why does the United States maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia?

Primarily because of oil. Saudi Arabia's oil reserves, by far the largest of any nation, give it considerable control over the world oil market. The United States, the world's largest consumer of oil, relies on Saudi Arabia for about 20 percent of total U.S. crude-oil imports and 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption. Trade between the two countries grew from $56.2 million in 1950 to $19.3 billion in 2000.

What do the Saudi people think of the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

Although many sons and daughters of Saudi elite have studied and worked in the United States, there has been a sharp swing of negative feelings toward the United States in recent years. A recent poll by Zogby International showed that 97 percent of Saudis view the United States in a negative light, leading some commentators to say that Saudi-American relations have hit their lowest point in decades. A Gallup poll placed the number closer to 65 percent. Underlying this attitude, experts say, is widespread anger over U.S. support for Israel, U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's authoritarian government, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

What do Americans think of Saudi Arabia?

Polls show that Americans' positive attitudes toward Saudi Arabia dropped dramatically after Sept. 11 because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. In early 2001, 56 percent of Americans gave Saudi Arabia a favorable rating, according to a Zogby International poll. By December 2001, that number had fallen to 24 percent. Attitudes had shifted slightly by early 2003, to 35 percent of Americans saying they viewed the kingdom in a positive light.