Why U.S. Military Bases Are Good for Mecca and Medina

It’s well known that the establishment of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia at the outset of the Persian Gulf War caused Islamic fundamentalists, in particular Osama Bin Laden, much consternation. The fundamentalists thought that the presence of U.S. soldiers would contaminate the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. For Bin Laden, the outrage was so great that he felt compelled to declare war on America and the West. Here he is getting his knickers in a twist over the infidel American invaders in his 1998 “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”:

TheArabian Peninsulahas never–since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. … [T]he United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

What Bin Laden never says, and what Chatterbox didn’t know until fairly recently, is that the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia dates back not to 1990, but to 1946. If harboring nearby U.S. troops desecrates Mecca and Medina, these places were spoiled long before the Gulf War, even long before Bin Laden was born. More surprising still, the first introduction of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia came about at the end of a chain of events aimed at increasing the number of Muslims to visit the two holy places. This effort was a success, but is Bin Laden grateful? Of course not.

As Harvard’s Nadav Safran explains in Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security, the flow of pilgrims traveling to Mecca and Medina slowed to a trickle after 1929 as a result of the Great Depression. Since Saudi Arabia was heavily dependent on this pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, for revenue, the slowdown threatened the country’s finances, and, indeed, its very existence, which was quite precarious. To boost his treasury, King Ibn Saud in 1933 granted an oil concession to Standard Oil of California. “The agreement was bitterly opposed by the religious leaders on the grounds that it would let into the country infidels who would corrupt the people and introduce liquor, phonographs, and other instruments of the devil,” Safran writes, “but Ibn Saud overrode the opposition on what might be called raison d’état.” Sound familiar? Then the onset of World War II halted oil development and stemmed the tide of pilgrims once again, whereupon Standard Oil persuaded the U.S. government to provide aid via the Lend-Lease program. In exchange, the Saudis, though officially neutral, allowed U.S. Army planes headed for the Far East to stop in Saudi Arabia to refuel starting in 1942. In 1944, the United States asked Ibn Saud if it could build its own air base for this purpose in Dhahran, and the Saudi king said yes. Construction began in 1945 and was completed in 1946. The United States continued to use the air base as a stopover and a training base for the Saudi armed forces. Eventually the base was turned over to the Saudis when its lease expired in the early 1960s. (Chatterbox wishes to thank the Air Force Historical Research Agency for tracking down some of this information.)

Before the American air base was built at Dhahran, something like 130,000 pilgrims could make the Hajj in a good year. (In 1931, only 40,000 came.) Today, more than a million pilgrims come. The same forces of globalization that put a U.S. air field in Dhahran half a century ago made the Saudis rich enough to expand the shrines. It was Bin Laden’s own family that got the construction contracts! Meanwhile, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia during the past decade helped deter potential foreign invaders like Iraq, which is not known for its liberal granting of visas. This is a great deal for the Saudis. It’s a little less clear, especially whenever OPEC allows oil prices to spike, that this is a great deal for the United States, but that’s a story for another day.