U.S. sending troops back to Saudi Arabia as row with Iran heats up
RIYADH – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman approved hosting U.S. forces in the country to boost regional security and stability, the state news agency (SPA) reported on Friday.
The U.S. Defense Department confirmed the move in a statement, saying it would deploy troops and resources to Saudi Arabia to “provide an additional deterrent” in the face of “emergent, credible threats.”
The gesture comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran in the Gulf that have impacted global oil markets.
On Friday, Iran said it had seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, but denied Washington’s assertion that the U.S. Navy had downed an Iranian drone nearby earlier this week.
The decision on hosting U.S. forces aims “to increase joint cooperation in defense of regional security and stability and to preserve its peace,” SPA said, quoting a Ministry of Defense official, without giving further details.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deployment would include about 500 U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia, and is part of a boost in the number of U.S. troops in the Middle East that the Pentagon announced last month.
In June, the Pentagon said it would deploy 1,000 troops to the Middle East but did not say where they were going.
Senior American defense officials said some U.S. troops and Patriot air defense missile systems have already arrived at Prince Sultan Air Base, south of Riyadh, where the troops have been preparing for the arrival of aircraft later this summer as well as additional troops. The troops would likely be sent to the air base, which became a hub of American air power in the Middle East in the 1990s but was abandoned by Washington after it toppled Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry also announced the basing agreement Friday without mentioning details.
Putting U.S. combat forces back in Saudi Arabia, after an absence of more than a decade, adds depth to the regional alignment of U.S. military power, which is mostly in locations on the Persian Gulf that are more vulnerable to Iranian missile attack.
But it also introduces a political and diplomatic complication for the Trump administration, accused by critics of coddling the Saudis even after the murder last fall of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. Many in Congress now question the decadesold U.S.-Saudi security alliance and oppose major new arms sales to the kingdom.
Relations between Washington and Tehran worsened last year when President Donald Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.
Under the pact, Iran agreed to restrict nuclear work, long seen by the West as a cover for developing nuclear weapons, in return for lifting sanctions. But sanctions have since been reimposed, badly hurting Iran’s economy.
Trump has said he considers Saudi Arabia an important partner in the Middle East and counterweight to the influence of Iran.
Starting with the January 1991 air war against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait the previous summer, the U.S. flew a wide range of aircraft from Prince Sultan air base, originally known as al-Kharj. Supported by an all-American array of creature comforts like fast-food restaurants and swimming pools, U.S. forces there flew and maintained air force fighters and other warplanes.
The base also served as a launch pad for the December 1998 bombing of Iraq, code-named Operation Desert Fox, which targeted sites believed to be associated with Iraq’s nuclear and missile programs. In 2001, the base became home to the U.S. military’s main air control organization, known as the Combined Air Operations Center, which orchestrated the air war in Afghanistan until it was relocated in 2003 to al-Udeid air base in Qatar.