The Bush administration has agreed to lift restrictions
on the deployment of advanced U.S.-origin aircraft procured by the Saudi
Royal Air Force.
U.S. officials said the changes would allow the Saudi air force to
deploy its fleet of F-15 fighter-jets anywhere in the kingdom. They said
this would include the deployment of the F-15 in the Saudi air force base of
Tabuk, about 150 kilometers from Israel.
Congress was notified of the lifting of the U.S. restrictions in early
2003, the officials said. They said Israel was also told that Saudi F-15S
aircraft could operate from Tabuk.
[On Wednesday, the State Department advised the 300 non-essential U.S.
government staffers and their families in Saudi Arabia to depart at
Washington's expense, Middle East Newsline reported. The departure recommendation, issued amid new
information of an Al Qaida plot, was also extended to the 30,000 American
non-government personnel in the kingdom.]
In 2001, the General Accounting Office said in a report entitled
"Defense Trade: Information on U.S. Weapons Deliveries to the Middle East,"
that Washington received assurances from an unspecified country, said to be
Saudi Arabia, that it would not base the F-15S near the Israeli border. The
GAO did not name either Israel or Saudi Arabia.
"Prior to selling fighter aircraft to one country in the Middle East,
the U.S. government received assurances from the foreign government, through
formal discussions, that the aircraft would not be based near one of the
country's borders," the report said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has sent a letter to Congress
regarding the lifting of the U.S. restrictions on the F-15 in Saudi Arabia,
officials said. The letter cited the Saudi need to defend its air space amid
the deterioration of its aging F-5 and Tornado fleets.
Rumsfeld was also said to have asserted that Riyad demonstrated its
loyalty as a peaceful U.S. ally in the Middle East. The secretary dismissed
the prospect that the kingdom would use the F-15S against Israel.
Pentagon officials said Israel had been informed by Defense
Undersecretary Douglas Feith of the Saudi intention to deploy the F-15S
before the air force transferred the fighter-jets from bases in the central
part of the kingdom to Tabuk. They said Israel did not object.
Congressional sources disputed the Pentagon assertion. They said
Rumsfeld had reported the changes in Saudi F-15S deployment to Congress as
part of U.S. preparations for the war in Iraq. The result, the sources said,
was that members of the Congress who attended the briefing understood that
the F-15S deployment at Tabuk would be temporary.
"The committee understood that the Saudis would keep the F-15S in Tabuk
until the United States withdrew its forces from Saudi Arabia," a
congressional source said. "Then, the Saudis would return the F-15s to their
In September, the United States withdrew its aircraft fleet and
virtually all American soldiers from Saudi Arabia. The exception was about
200 U.S. military trainers meant to oversee the enhancement of Saudi
military and security forces.
But Pentagon officials said Rumsfeld made it clear in an appearance to
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that the lifting of
restrictions on the Saudi F-15s would be permanent. They said Rumsfeld
assured Congress that
Israel was not endangered by the lifting of the restrictions and that the
kingdom required a U.S. military presence to maintain the Saudi F-15 fleet.