Plans to speed up the transfer of the big US CENTCOM base in Qatar to Saudi Arabia were approved by President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Muhamed bin Salman when they met at the White House on Tuesday, March 20. This is an earthshaking event for the Middle East, which far transcends US-Saudi relations, according to Turkish media.
They also disclose that, despite repeated denials, the Trump administration is well into the process of another momentous move, packing up its air force and quitting Incirlik in southern Turkey, by far the biggest air base in the region.
The two moves are interconnected. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has become an avid supporter of the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who is locked in a feud with the Saudi rulers. Turkey recently established a large military base in the oil emirate. The CIA led coup in Turkey certainly didn’t help.
The Saudi Crown Prince and his ally, the UAE ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, are close friends and President Trump’s leading allies in the Gulf region. The two Gulf rulers view the Turkish president and Qatari emir as arch-foes.
The relocation of the two US bases stems from the fact that the US has yet to engage ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. However, the biggest problem for the Americans is what Turkey did to US soldiers in Incirlik during the unsucessful coup. The Turks quarantined the US airmen and staff at the base, turned off their electricity and water, left them without food supplies for days. The US facilities and aircraft based in Incirlik are already being shifted to bases in East Europe.
The Pentagon is also looking at Andravida in southern Greece as a replacement for Incirlik.
US installations are being shipped out of Al-Udaid in Qatar to the Prince Sultan Air base in central Saudi Arabia near Al Kharj, which lies 77km south of Riyadh. Fifteen years ago, this base was the main US air force hub for the oil-rich Gulf region, home at times to more than 60,000 US service personnel. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and captured Baghdad, the Saudi rulers insisted on the evacuation of US troops. Now they are returning.
The relocation of the two big US air bases in the Middle East is bound to shake up the region’s strategic dynamic. American soldiers are now in place to defend the Saudi kingdom. This will no doubt convey a clear message to Iran that the Trump administration has the back of the royal regime in Riyadh.