In this Feb. 20, 2020 file photo, a member of the U.S. Air Force stands near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan Air Base in al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.S. military is exploring the possibility of using a Red Sea port in Saudi Arabia and an additional two airfields in the kingdom amid heightened tensions with Iran, the military said Tuesday.
While describing the work as "contingency" planning, the U.S. military said it already has tested unloading and shipping cargo overland from Saudi Arabias port at Yanbu, a crucial terminal for oil pipelines in the kingdom.
Using Yanbu, as well as air bases at Tabuk and Taif along the Red Sea, would give the American military more options along a crucial waterway that has come under increased attack from suspected mine and drone boat attacks by Yemens Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
However, the announcement comes as Saudi-American relations remain strained by the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdoms ongoing war in Yemen in the first days of President Joe Bidens administration. Deploying — even temporarily — American troops to bases in the kingdom, which is home to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, could reignite anger among extremists.
U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, said the evaluation of the sites had been going on for over a year, sparked by the September 2019 drone-and-missile attack on the heart of the Saudi oil industry.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have blamed that attack, which temporarily halved Saudi oil production and saw a spike in oil prices, on Iran. Tehran has denied being involved and the Houthis claimed the assault, though the drones involved appear to be Iranian-made.
“These are prudent military planning measures that allow for temporary or conditional access of facilities in the event of a contingency, and are not provocative in any way, nor are they an expansion of the U.S. footprint in the region, in general, or in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular,” Urban wrote.
U.S. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, visited Yanbu on Monday. Defense One and the Wall Street Journal, which traveled with McKenzie to Yanbu, first reported on the American planning. Saudi officials did not respond to request for comment Tuesday.
Already, Saudi Arabia paid for improvements at the sites and are considering more, Urban said. Tabuk is home to King Faisal Air Base, while Taif is home to King Fahd Air Base.
The Gulf Arab states are home to a vast array of American military bases, the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War that saw U.S.-allied forces expel Iraq from Kuwait, and the later 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq. America pulled its forces out of Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 attacks. Osama bin Laden had cited their deployment in his attacks targeting the U.S.
Already, U.S. Central Command has a forward headquarters in Qatar. The U.S. Navys 5th Fleet operates from the island kingdom of Bahrain off Saudi Arabias coast. Kuwait hosts the U.S. Army Centrals forward headquarters, while the United Arab Emirates hosts American aviators and sailors.
Those locations also dont include the American troop presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Former President Donald Trump also deployed the first troops into Saudi Arabia since 9/11 over concerns about Iran. Some 2,500 American troops now man fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries at Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh.