Saudis to expand controversial
air force base near Israel

Monday, December 1, 2003

ABU DHABI Saudi Arabia has decided to develop a key air force base near the Israeli border.

The Saudi Defense Ministry has launched a project to develop and expand the King Faisal Air Base in Tabuk. The base contains about 50 advanced F-15S fighter-jets, which were sent to the northwestern facility on the eve of the U.S.-led war against Iraq in March 2003.

The United States has raised the issue with the kingdom, which has refused to move the U.S.-origin aircraft. Under a 1978 agreement for the first F-15s to Riyad, Saudi Arabia pledged not to deploy the aircraft in Tabuk.

Israel has warned the United States that the F-15S presence at Tabuk could be used by Al Qaida agents within the Saudi military to attack the Jewish state, Middle East Newsline reported.

Officials said support facilities at the air force base will be expanded and improved. They did not say whether this would include maintenance and logistics facilities for the F-15S fleet.

Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz has launched several projects to improve Tabuk military facilities during his current tour of Saudi bases. The minister opened expanded mess facilities that can feed 700 soldiers at a time.

Officials said the project cost 23.5 million riyal, about $6 million. The military's corp of engineers completed the expansion over a period of 10 months. Sultan said his ministry would open several technical military institutes in Tabuk and nearby regions over the next five years.

The expansion of Saudi air force facilities in Tabuk also included the launch of a military hospital. The plan includes the construction of 360 housing units for hospital and military staff. Officials said the housing was meant to accommodate the arrival of military personnel transferred from other regions of the kingdom.

Another project was to establish new facilities for Islamic worship in an effort launched in cooperation with the Islamic Affairs Ministry. The Defense Ministry plans to build a prayer hall of 25,000 square meters to accommodate 4,500 military personnel.

Western diplomatic sources said the project at Tabuk could signal Saudi intentions to maintain deployment of most or all of the F-15S fleet over the long term. Earlier, the Saudi Air Force was expected to return most of the F-15S fleet, ordered in 1995, because of a shortage of maintenance and logistics facilities at King Abdul Aziz Military City and King Faisal Air Base.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Bin Suleiman Al Sidais, the commander of the King Faisal Air Base, told a gathering on Wednesday during the visit by Sultan that the facility has grown rapidly over the last year. Al Sidais that the number of fighter-jets at the base grew by 200 percent in wake of the arrival of an F-15 squadron. In all, the base contains six squadrons of fighter-jets.

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