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US expanding military presence in Saudi Arabia amid high tensions with Iran

Frank McKenzie, the top US commander for the Middle East, meets with troops at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, January 29, 2019. (Photo by AP)

The US military says it has been testing different ports and airbases on Saudi soil over the past year as options for the deployment of troops and equipment in the event of a conflict with Iran amid heightened tensions between the two sides.

US Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, said the evaluation of a Red Sea port in Saudi Arabia and additional two airfields began around a year ago under ex-president Donald Trump, following a 2019 attack against the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq.

The Aramco installations were targeted in air raids on September 14, 2019, which disrupted approximately half of the kingdom’s oil capacity or five percent of the daily global oil supply.

“These are prudent military planning measures that allow for temporary or conditional access of facilities in the event of a contingency, and are not provocative in any way, nor are they an expansion of the US footprint in the region, in general, or in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular,” Urban claimed, according to the Associated Press.

Following the Aramco attack, Saudi Arabia and the US immediately blamed Iran without providing any evidence. Iran denied the allegation. Yemen’s popular Houthi Ansarullah movement later claimed responsibility.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also said the body’s investigators were unable to independently confirm claims that the Islamic Republic was behind the attack.

Relations first turned sour between Tehran and Riyadh after the latter executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, on January 2, 2016, drawing widespread fury among Shia Muslims across the region and the world.

The execution was followed later in the day by an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran by angry protesters. Riyadh cut diplomatic relations with Tehran after the attack, and has since pursued a willful policy of hostility against the Islamic Republic.

In spite of numerous calls by Iranian leaders for dialog, Saudi Arabia overtly lobbied for former US President Donald Trump’s so-called maximum pressure on Iran, which included severe economic pressure and military provocations.

Also, during Trump’s four years in office, the US deployed the first troops into Saudi Arabia since the withdrawal of its forces from the kingdom in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Currently, some 2,500 American soldiers man fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries at Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and the US concluded joint military exercises in a show of force that Riyadh claimed was “to maintain security and stability in the region.”

The Saudi air force, the Royal Saudi Naval Force, the US Navy, the US Coast Guard and the US Air Force also conducted combined joint air operations in the Persian Gulf between December 17 and 18 last year.

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