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Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | December 2006
The Arab World has maintained a long and problematic history with Western military bases on its territory. Until at least the 1940s, imperial powers often maintained that these bases were designed to defend regional nations against foreign invaders, but they also were used to pressure and sometimes control client governments. However necessary and important such pressure might have been during World War II, it was still a series of infringements on sovereignty that formed an important backdrop for Arab views on U.S. basing issues. Nationalist ferment against foreign bases was a key component of Arab politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In response to these regional political concerns, as well as changing Western military requirements and economic pressures, the U.S. and British military presence in the Middle East declined steadily, and a number of major Western bases were evacuated. By the early 1970s, the U.S. and British military presence in the area had been scaled down dramatically, and other issues had become more prominent in Arab-American relations.
The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait introduced a major shock into the Arab system, and Saudi Arabia allowed large numbers of U.S. and other troops to be stationed on its soil as a prelude to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Significant numbers of U.S. forces remained in Saudi Arabia for another 12 years following Saddam?s 1991 defeat by coalition forces, establishing a new military reality in the region. Additionally, Bahrain and Oman strengthened existing agreements with the United States in the aftermath of Operation DESERT STORM, while Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar negotiated new security agreements. Nevertheless, in the years following 1991, many of the old concerns about the political meaning of a Western military presence in the region re-emerged. Saudi Arabia, in particular, began to repeat the earlier pattern whereby large and important Arab states often find it embarrassing to rely too publicly on the West for their military security. Additionally, these same states may have difficulty presenting themselves as important voices within the Arab World if they appear to be disproportionately influenced by the West and dependent on it for national security concerns. The United States and Saudi Arabia eventually reached an agreement for the withdrawal of almost all U.S. military forces in 2003, although the two countries remain close, and the United States continues to be a major arms supplier to the Saudis.
A variety of large or strategically placed Arab states, including Egypt and Jordan, maintain close military relations with the United States, although for nationalistic reasons they stop short of allowing permanent bases. The strong exception to the general Arab disapproval of U.S. bases in the Middle East has remained the more welcoming approach of the smaller Arab Gulf states. Some of these nations at times deliberately have sought to attract a U.S. military presence which they viewed as vital to their defense. It is, therefore, useful to continue to nurture current basing arrangements with friendly Arab countries of the Gulf which accept a U.S. presence as vital to their own national security and perhaps their national survival. Such states include Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and under certain circumstances, Oman. These countries have proven their friendship and their willingness to work with the United States under a variety of circumstances. It is also important for the United States to continue to maintain strong military links to other significant Arab allies that do not involve permanent bases or even placement of military stocks for future use. Strong military ties with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others are valuable for the security of the region, and can be especially important during times of crisis when these nations can help the United States through their political influence, intelligence sharing, and temporary use of their military facilities. The support of these countries also may be necessary to ensure that other states permitting U.S. basing are not criticized mercilessly or humiliated in front of their publics and the world.
It should be emphasized further that the United States must not place serious hope in the prospect of long-term military bases in Iraq unless there is overwhelming political sentiment within that country favoring these bases. The development of such sentiment appears extremely unlikely. Iraq has a sensitivity about Western domination that is grounded firmly in its historical experience, and this is a history which contemporary Iraqis have not forgotten. Moreover, Iraq is a large and prominent Arab state which seeks a major voice in regional politics. An ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq could serve to undermine the credibility of the Iraqis in asserting that voice. Any Iraqi government seeking permanent bases would almost certainly hurt itself with its own public.
Finally, despite the strong and important relations that the United States has with a variety of Gulf Arab allies providing basing rights, it would be a mistake to treat these relationships too casually. A constant temptation for a superpower is to assert its own concerns at the expense of its allies, and justify such actions by the disparity in power. Unfortunately, allies that depend on the United States for their own security can become especially resentful of U.S. actions because their frustration and that of their publics are compounded by that dependency. These frustrations can create problems later that could have been avoided, and every effort must be made to do so. A number of states within the region respond exceptionally well to high level consultation and simply a willingness to listen to their points of view. Many within the Gulf also appreciated the U.S. administration?s willingness to stand up for the value of the United Arab Emirates alliance during the Dubai Ports World controversy. All of these states understand the dangers posed by Iran, although they must sometimes go through the motions of showing respect for the Iranian presence in the region. None of these states trust Iran, and while the U.S. approach to regional security may sometimes be a source of aggravation, it is viewed widely as an indispensable presence.