Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Military Learns to Live with a Cool Host in Saudi Arabia

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Military Learns to Live with a Cool Host in Saudi Arabia

Article excerpt

The American jet fighters take off and land in rapid succession, rising above the shimmering airfield and screeching toward Iraq, or coming home from patrol.

The flight line is crowded with dozens of F-15 and F-16 jet fighters, transports, and AWACS - the largest concentration of US air power in the Middle East, and one that few Saudis will ever see.

The "special" relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US has come a long way since 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt aptly met King Abdel Aziz on an American warship off the coast of Egypt.

But despite the longstanding ties that essentially trade Saudi oil for US security, internal politics on both sides complicate the picture.

The 5,000 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia are kept at arm's length, for their protection and for the protection of the Saudi people. In Washington, meanwhile, pro-Israel lobbies seek to limit sales of US military hardware to Saudi Arabia military that they deem a potential future threat to the Jewish state.

"Saudi is like other Arab allies - when tension rises in the area, it is tough for our friends," says a Western diplomat. "The relationship is fundamental, but to Arab leaders the US is a domestic liability. It's a constant balancing act."

Most US Air Force personnel here can count the number of Saudis they have seen on the fingers of two hands. To further isolate - and protect - the US forces after the bombing at Khobar Towers last year, the Air Force moved its entire operation in a few weeks from Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, to this base south of Riyadh.

Security is top priority, and the Saudis permitted US forces to resuscitate this old base and 13,000-foot runway that was built during the Gulf War. The Saudis provide all jet fuel for free, and pay for much of the food. "The most important thing in this {US} strategy are friends and access," says US Air Force Brig. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, the 4044th Wing commander.

Units here fly 40 to 50 sorties a day to ensure that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein does not violate the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. They are also an integral part of the 20,000-strong US troop presence in the Gulf. …

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