Riyadh and Washington have moved swiftly to deny reports that the 5,000 US military personnel stationed in the kingdom since the end of the Gulf war would soon be asked to leave. The reports claimed that senior Saudi officials believe the continued presence of personnel on Saudi soil to be unnecessary and a political liability.
The US uses Saudi air force bases to patrol Baghdad's compliance with the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. It also maintains a command and control centre in the kingdom. No missions were flown against Afghanistan from the Saudi Arabian bases.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell on 20 January denied the reports, but did not rule out the possibility that the role of US personnel in the kingdom would be redefined or given a different emphasis. 'We have not been handed an eviction notice or any warning of an eviction notice,' he said. 'Some discussion has taken place. but nothing of the nature suggested [by the newspaper story].'
His position was echoed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. 'To my knowledge it has not happened and I would think I would know,' he said on 20 January to a question about the alleged demand to withdraw. 'How it will evolve in the future is, of course, up to the Saudis.
The kingdom's top military brass insisted there was no change of policy. 'This talk has been dealt with by the media and it is not accurately based.,' said general Saleh al-Muhayya on 21 January. 'The arrival of Americans came about in the first place with the consent of the kingdom and any increase in the number of forces currently present...must be approved in advance by the kingdom even if it were just for a few days.'
The denials point to a desire on both sides to affirm the strength of Saudi-US relations. The original reports had contributed to claims of a rift between the two countries in some sections of the Western press.
A high profile lawsuit brought by a senior female fighter pilot has recently brought the role of US military personnel in the kingdom under closer scrutiny. Colonel Martha McSally successfully contested US forces regulations demanding she wear a full abaya and sit in the back seat of vehicles during her posting in the kingdom.
Crown Prince Abdullah defended the kingdom's ties with the US before denouncing the media as 'mercenary' at a press briefing for local journalists in Kuwait on 23 January. 'Our relations with the US and in particular with its government headed by President George Bush are excellent. Our relations with the US people are excellent.'
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