The administration of US President Donald Trump is reportedly preparing to send hundreds of troops to Saudi Arabia amid escalating tensions with Iran and despite growing criticisms of Washington’s military ties with Riyadh over the regime’s gloomy human rights record.
Citing two US defense officials, CNN reported on Thursday that around five-hundred troops are expected to be dispatched to the Prince Sultan Air Base, located in a desert area east of the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
They said that a small number of troops and support personnel are already in the air base, with initial preparations being made for a US-made Patriot missile system as well as runway and airfield improvements.
The unnamed US officials said that Washington is expected to fly stealth, fifth-generation F-22 jets and other fighters from the air base.
Commercial high-resolution satellites taken in mid-June by Planet Labs and obtained by CNN, show an initial deployment of US forces and support personnel to the site, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has studied the new images.
“A small encampment and construction equipment appeared at the end of a runway by June 27, suggesting that improvements are already underway. The encampment to the east of the runway is typical of Air Force engineering squadrons deployed overseas,” he told CNN.
So far, neither the Pentagon nor Saudi Arabia has made any comment on the issue.
Last month, the Pentagon announced it was sending 1,000 additional US forces and more military resources to the Middle East but did not specify which countries they were going to. The forces going to Saudi Arabia are said to be part of this deployment.
Congress has not been formally notified of the deployment, although one official told CNN that they had been given an informal heads-up and an announcement is expected next week.
The US decision to boost military ties with Saudi Arabia comes despite Congressional outcry over the kingdom’s human rights records.
The White House said in May it was making an emergency provision within the country’s arms control law to enable billions of dollars of arms sales to the Saudi kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, the US’s main allies in the Persian Gulf. The recourse helps the president bypass congressional review for the exports.
The Trump administration had cited “alleged threats from Iran” to justify resorting to the provision.
Democrats said the president’s action violated the law because there was no actual emergency.
They also said Trump’s action shows that the United States is tolerating worst human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen.
“The emergency declaration is nothing more than an egregious abuse of power by an Administration that doesn't like being told, ‘No.’ There is no emergency, but there is a conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians with US-made weapons and a Congress that is tired of being complicit,” California Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, said in a statement last month.
The US has been supporting a 2015-present Saudi-led war against Yemen that seeks to bring back the impoverished country’s former Riyadh-backed officials. The American patronage has featured aerial refueling, which the US only stopped earlier in the year after the Saudi-led coalition grew independent of it, as well as logistical and commando support.
Tens of thousands have died since the onset of the war, and the entire Yemen has been pushed close to the edge of outright famine.
A year after the war was launched, Trump made his maiden foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, announcing more than $100 billion in arms sales to the kingdom.
Lawmakers had been holding up the sales amid concerns about civilian casualties in the war and fury at Saudi Arabia over its killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year.