Riyadh agreed to the deployment of several hundred American soldiers on its soil in order “to enhance everything that could preserve the security of the region and its stability” according to the Saudi Defense Ministry. Even so, U.S. troops are not returning to the kingdom; they have never left it since 2003.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf and Yemen compel Washington to take an increasingly robust stance and to multiply support to its allies in the area, including Saudi Arabia. Last May, the Pentagon announced the reinforcement of its capabilities in the Persian Gulf. Thirty-five thousand American troops are currently present in other Gulf countries, especially in Qatar (10,000) as well as in Kuwait and Bahrain, the seat of America’s 5th Fleet. F-15 and F-22 fighting jets have been positioned, and the U.S. Navy deployed additional ships including mine hunters in anticipation of an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz.
Saudi Arabia was not forgotten. Even though the House of Representatives vetoed an $8.1 billion weapons sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration is determined to militarily reinforce its traditional ally in the region. In May, the State Department approved $2.7 billion worth of weapons sales.
Friday night, the Pentagon announced the additional sale of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, a system of missiles interception; that increased the contract price from $3,890 665 224 to $5,364,606,980. Prior to that, Riyadh confirmed a rumor that floated around for a couple of days: U.S. troops would be deployed in the kingdom. The American media reported that a contingent of 500 soldiers would be deployed.
Not a Comeback
Are American troops making a comeback in the great petroleum kingdom of the Gulf, as asserted by several media?
In reality, it is not the first deployment of that kind since the withdrawal of American troops stationed in the kingdom during both Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003).
According to the Pentagon’s official figures, 527 American soldiers and civilians were already stationed in Saudi Arabia by the end of last March. On top of that small contingent, many contractors and civilian personnel work for companies under contract with the Department of Defense on the Saudis’ behalf.
The headcount of these contractors is not clearly known. Vinnell Arabia, a company in charge of training Saudi forces, as well as of ensuring the maintenance of operational conditions, is staffed with 1,250 employees in the country, half of them Americans.
Equipment manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin ensure the technical support of weapons sold by the U.S., and therefore maintain a constant presence there. Private military contractor DynCorp also executes missions there on behalf of the Saudi Armed Forces and National Guard.
Thus, that amounts to several thousand Americans who are already there; therefore it’s not the 500 soldiers the media is reporting that will make an impact. According to London’s King’s College professor Andreas Krieg, “500 American soldiers in Saudi Arabia are hardly a buildup, particularly when we are thinking about a war with Iran. These soldiers are there to get Prince Sultan Airbase ready for potential deployment of an air squadron.”
A Political Deployment
Why such a deployment?
According to experts, the announced deployment aims at reinforcing ties between Washington and Riyadh, ties that have experienced tensions this year. James Dorsey, researcher at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, states, “Saudis are saying ‘if you stick with us, we will stick with you’ and Americans are trying to say, ‘we have your back.’”
Indeed, according to several members of Congress, Donald Trump’s administration is under pressure from Congress because of its very conciliatory response to the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October. For Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, such a deployment of American troops “is about showing that the U.S. is till an important security guarantor and committed to Saudi security,” according to Krieg.