In news that isn’t really “news”, a number of media outlets are confirming what most already knew, that Saudi Arabia is hosting a U.S. drone base. The September 2011 strike against Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen – a U.S. al-Qaeda cleric – was launched from the same base.
Until the NYT broke the story, U.S. media outlets were advised by the administration not to disclose the location, fearing it could harm counter-terrorist relations with Saudi Arabia.
John Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Riyadh, was apparently instrumental in brokering the deal.
As the Guardian reports:
The drone issue is sensitive in Saudi Arabia because of the unpopularity of US military bases, which were thought to have been largely removed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the continued presence of US troops after the 1991 Gulf war was one of the stated motivations behind al-Qaida’s 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Khobar Towers bombing five years earlier.
The last significant US military presence was at the King Sultan airbase in Khobar in the eastern province. The forces there were relocated to Qatar.
The revelation is unlikely to make significant waves inside the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has no independent media but there is no sympathy for the jihadis of al-Qaida targeted in Yemen. Saudi Arabia conducted its own successful campaign against al-Qaida, in effect destroying it by 2004. Its remnants moved to Yemen and formed al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), perhaps the most active of the group’s “franchises”.
I found the following quote interesting:
“These planes are unmanned so there will not be the same impact as when American planes were flying from the Prince Sultan base,” Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai told the Guardian. “No one will say that the Americans are occupying the country.
“I don’t think people care about this any more. Generally it is accepted in the region that the planes operated by the Americans are not doing a bad job taking out al-Qaida leaders. There is no sympathy with al-Qaida except a very small minority. Even in Yemen – apart from the collateral damage where civilians lose their life – there is no objection to this type of operation.
“It has been rumoured for years that drones were taking off from the Arabian peninsula so this is not shocking news except for the Iranians and jihadis. Otherwise it is not going register in public opinion.”