The US Air Force has begun preparations to move its Gulf headquarters from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, to bypass Saudi objections to military action against Iraq, according to Saudi analysts and businessmen involved in the relocation.
A senior executive of a Saudi contracting firm told the Guardian that several companies had been invited to prepare bids to move computers and electronics from the hi-tech command center at Prince Sultan air force base.
The independent Saudi Information Agency, based in Washington, reported that US military trucks had been seen leaving the base at al Kharj, 50 miles south of Riyadh, and arriving at the border with Qatar in the second week of March.
The vast al-Udeid air base in Qatar has become increasingly important to the US air force since the Saudi government refused to allow air raids on Afghanistan to be launched from its soil. The movement of trucks to Qatar may represent a temporary redistribution of resources to pursue the Afghan war, but the request for bids to move sophisticated equipment suggests a more permanent relocation, analysts said.
The move to Qatar, which has been the subject of speculation in Washington for the past few weeks, would allow the US to conduct an air campaign against Iraq in the face of Saudi refusal to collaborate, overcoming a serious obstacle to the second phase of the US "war on terror".
It would also help alleviate the threat to the stability of the Saudi royal family posed by Sunni Islamic militants for whom the US military presence is a burning issue. Osama bin Laden has challenged the Saudi government's legitimacy on the grounds that it permitted the American "occupation" of Islam's holy sites.
A US central command spokesman confirmed the bids yesterday but insisted they represented business as usual. "This is not uncommon. This is status quo. We are moving stuff from point A to point B. This is an ongoing process," Major Ralph Mills said.
At a press conference in Bahrain during his tour of the Gulf last week, Vice-President Dick Cheney also denied there were plans to move. "We have not made any plans to make any change in our military positions with respect to Saudi Arabia," Mr Cheney told journalists. He added that he had not discussed the issue during an earlier stop in Saudi Arabia.
But the Saudi contractor said his company had been invited to make a bid for a "multimillion dollar contract" to move the Prince Sultan base's equipment over the border to Qatar. "That is what we've been asked to estimate. The bid process is open for three to four weeks, so now it is about two weeks to the deadline," he told the Guardian, on condition of anonymity.
An executive from a US contractor said his company had also prepared a bid to install telephone switchboards in new US military housing at the al-Udeid base in Qatar. He said the US army would maintain a presence at Prince Sultan.
Ali Alahmed, a Saudi human rights activist who runs the Washington-based Saudi Institute and the Saudi Information Agency, said: "It is clear that this move is happening. We have this now from not one but several sources."
"They've been running the full spectrum of support and combat aircraft out of al-Udeid, so you would expect them to move resources out of Prince Sultan to where they need them," said John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington thinktank. "But if they are taking bids for a full-scale move, this would be the first concrete sign of relocation."
There are currently about 4,500 US troops at the Prince Sultan base and an unknown number of warplanes. Aircraft from the base are used to patrol the southern no-fly zone over Iraq but, because of Saudi sensitivities, planes from Kuwait are often used for retaliatory air strikes against Iraqi air defenses if the patrols are fired on.
The Saudi regime also refused to allow the US to mount air raids over Afghanistan from the Prince Sultan base, but the state-of-the art combined air operations center, completed less than a year ago, served as an electronic hub, coordinating the aerial campaign.
Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, has been adamant in his opposition to a US attack on Iraq. At the time of Mr Cheney's visit, he declared that Washington "should not strike Iraq because such an attack would only raise animosity in the region against the United States".
Qatar is seen in Washington as a more stable and willing host. The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has received strong US backing since overthrowing his father in 1995, and introduced democratic reforms. Among Gulf leaders he has been the strongest advocate of ties with Israel.
The al-Udeid air base, 19 miles south-west of Doha, is a modern billion-dollar installation with huge hangars and the longest runways in the Gulf.
The former head of US central command, General Anthony Zinni, now Washington's special envoy to the Middle East, has said he began plans to lessen military dependence on Saudi Arabia. "I wanted to have some flexibility, so we didn't become totally dependent on one place," he told the New York Times.
The US military presence in Saudi Arabia has been a continuing source of friction on both sides, illustrated earlier this year by the case of Lt Col Martha McSally, a US pilot who is suing the administration over its requirement that she comply with Saudi rules by wearing a gown covering her face and body when off-base.
Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, recently called for the air force to move out of Prince Sultan base. "There's a real problem when we're told that a country that's presumably an ally of ours doesn't want us to be seen by its people," he told journalists.
The apparent preparations to evacuate the Prince Sultan base are the latest in a series of US moves preparing the ground for a US military operation: central command has moved its service headquarters to the Gulf; and special forces have set up a base in Oman and, according to Turkish sources, have moved into Kurdish-run areas in northern Iraq.
There have also been unconfirmed reports, in the US press and from Iraqi opposition groups, of a quiet US military build up in Kuwait to between 25,000 and 35,000 troops.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002