Why the U.S. Is Pulling Out of Saudi Arabia

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Donald Rumsfeld addresses Coalition troops at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia

TIME.com: The U.S. has announced it will pull most of its troops out of Saudi Arabia, and has already begun redeploying. Have the Saudis asked for the troop withdrawal, or does it reflect a downgrading of Saudi Arabia's significance as a U.S. ally in the region?

Scott MacLeod: My sources are telling me that the decision was reached by mutual consent, and on a friendly basis — Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's meetings in Saudi Arabia over the past couple of days have been cordial and friendly, with good vibes reported on both sides. The reason for the withdrawal, my sources are saying, is that there had been a desire for a long time to make the U.S. military presence in Saudi "over the horizon" rather than immediately visible. It'll be there if the Saudis need it, but it won't be there permanently. The end of Saddam Hussein's regime has allowed both sides to scale back their security relationship to where it had been in 1990, before the first Gulf War. Back then, the U.S. had maintained a close military relationship, in terms of training, arms supply and so on, that stretched back decades without causing the sort of domestic political problems that have accompanied the stationing of U.S. troops inside the kingdom since Operation Desert Shield. Now they can revert to that relationship, because the demise of Saddam means the official reason for the U.S. troop presence no longer exists.

Operation Iraqi Freedom had brought an additional 20-25,000 U.S. troops into Saudi over the past few months, and those are obviously no longer needed. Also, the changed landscape of the region means that a facility of the scale of Prince Sultan airbase, from which it was possible to direct thousands of simultaneous air operations, is no longer required. The duplicate facility built in Qatar for the current conflict, which is more state-of-the-art and also more portable, is more than adequate for the new situation.

Saddam's ouster has also significantly increased the U.S. strategic presence in the region, raising questions about what sort of military facilities the Americans will ask for or get from a new Iraqi government. But recent war also showed that you didn't need a major commitment from Saudi Arabia to achieve U.S. military goals in the region — the Gulf States and U.S. aircraft carriers were able to stage much of the air war, because the Saudis didn't want the U.S. to fly direct combat missions against Iraq from their territory. Still, the relationship worked pretty well during the war. The Saudis did allow air missions, refueling, the staging of Special Forces and other operations — the U.S. got the minimum of what it asked for.

TIME.com: Even though the Saudis mooted the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal some time ago, some may be inclined to see the withdrawal as some form of punishment for the Saudis for not wholeheartedly supporting the U.S. war effort?

MacLeod: Some politicians in Washington may be inclined to cast this decision as a slap in the face to the Saudis, but I see no sign that at the highest level of the U.S. government that Saudi Arabia is being abandoned as a strategic ally. The fundamentals of that relationship — which long predated the deployment of U.S. troops there and are based on Saudi Arabia's oil production, its geographic location and its longstanding friendship with the U.S. — remain unchanged. Even in the best-case scenario in Iraq, it take a very long time before the government and people of Iraq are as closely aligned with the U.S. as the Saudis are.

TIME.com: How will the announcement be received inside Saudi Arabia?

MacLeod: Some in the Saudi leadership will welcome the news, because they have been upset by what they see as the U.S. acting as if it owned Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of nationalism in the royal family, not to mention on the streets. And those elements will be happy to see U.S. troops withdrawn, and won't see any downside. But there will be others in the leadership who will worry about the reality, or the perception, that the withdrawal downgrades Saudi Arabia's strategic importance to the U.S. The Saudis believe they need to be under a U.S. security umbrella. And some may be concerned that this withdrawal creates the impression among internal Saudi opposition forces, and also Iran, that Saudi Arabia's importance to the U.S. has diminished, and this may encourage them to mount new challenges to Saudi regime.

TIME.com: Ironically, the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia has long been one of the primary grievances of Osama bin Laden and his organization. How will the withdrawal play for bin Laden and his supporters?

MacLeod: Well, remember, for bin Laden, it wasn't simply a question of the U.S. troops; it was the idea that the presence of those troops showed just how subservient the royal family had become to the U.S. The extremists perceive the Saudi regime as agents of the U.S. and that perception won't change with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Saudis won't hide their continued agreements and cooperation with the U.S. and the hard-line fundamentalists will continue to see Americans as dominating Saudi affairs. It may even be worse, because there are now some 250,000 U.S. troops just over the border in Iraq, a bigger footprint than ever, and it was put there with a degree of cooperation from the Saudis.

TIME.com: Will the U.S. withdrawal help or hinder the quest for domestic political reform in Saudi Arabia?

MacLeod: Some Saudis will be very concerned about the message this sends about the strength of their regime. After all, the strength and visibility of that relationship reinforced an aura of invincibility at home. That may have been important for the regime, but it may also have been a liability. Ordinary Saudis, not only fundamentalists, feel their government has been too subservient to the U.S. So this may actually work in favor of those pushing for internal reform, because the U.S. presence had soured many on the royal family. Now that the Americans are getting out and the relationship will be recast as one of mutual respect, it will help government reformists focus on domestic issues related to Saudi Arabia's development.