So far, Saudis shrug at revelation of secret U.S. drone base

February 11, 2013

A U.S. drone base in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar/AFP/Getty Images)

So far, Saudi citizens do not appear to be reacting very strongly to news that the U.S. government operates a secret drone base within their country. Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi journalist who runs the Riyadh Bureau Web site, wrote on Friday that the story has not elicited the sort of public outrage that some had feared:

The Saudi government has not made any statement about U.S. news reports that the CIA is using an airbase in Saudi Arabia to conduct drone assassinations in neighboring Yemen, and local media has so far ignored the story. Saudi users on Twitter talked about the story briefly, but it was not widely discussed on the social network compared to other recent stories.

Al Omran cites a Twitter hashtag that translates, roughly, as "Secret U.S. base in Saudi Arabia." Since Al Omran posted on Friday, discussion on that hashtag seems to have largely petered out.

I asked other Gulf-country citizens if they had heard of any reaction, whether from mainstream or more marginal sources, and none had. One pointed out that the U.S.'s close counterterrorism cooperation with the Saudi government is well known, as are the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. And it had been previously reported that the U.S. maintains a drone base somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula — which Saudi Arabia dominates. The news, in other words, does not appear to have shocked Saudis who follow this sort of thing.

For months, the U.S. government had asked media organizations not to reveal the base, which has sent drones at least into neighboring Yemen. A major rationale for that request, according to the New York Times public editor, was that the news might inflame Saudi public opinion. The concern was that outraged Saudi citizens might pressure their government to close the base, thus removing an American counterterrorism tool and creating another problem for the already troubled U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Though the Saudi public reaction has been muted so far, there was very real precedent behind the fear that it might have gone differently. In 1990, as Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait, U.S. troops arrived in Saudi Arabia. Their purpose was both to expel Saddam's forces from Kuwait and to prevent them from pushing any farther, namely into neighboring Saudi Arabia. Still, their presence sparked a public debate within that country that quickly elevated extremist and anti-American voices.

"America has occupied Saudi Arabia," a Saudi sheikh declared on one of the popular audiotapes that circulated in the Arab world. He added, making an argument that has in the intervening two decades become familiar to Americans, "It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam." The Islamist sheikhs and activists soon turned their ire to their own government, demanding a series of reforms from the absolute monarchy; some quasi-democratic, some Islamist. Though most of their requests were not related to the U.S. military presence, those troops had caused enough public outrage to put the monarchy on its back foot.

When John O. Brennan arrived as the CIA station chief in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh in 1996, the public debate that had begun with the arrival of U.S. troops was still ongoing. Not all of the opponents of the U.S. troop presence were extremist, of course, but the extremists seemed to be on the rise. The Saudi monarchy seemed to want to work with the Americans on counterterrorism and against mutual enemies – first Iraq, now Iran – but it remained deeply concerned about domestic dissent of any kind. Brennan, whom the Obama administration recently nominated to head up the CIA, would have likely been involved with any conversations between U.S. and Saudi officials about balancing those goals.

Given that Brennan was reportedly an architect of the U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, perhaps his experience with the country's 1990s domestic turmoil informed the U.S. government's apparent urgency in keeping the base secret.

So what does it tell us that the feared public backlash has not, so far, materialized? It is difficult to draw many conclusions from this one incident, but it does suggest several interesting possibilities. Perhaps, for example, there is something categorically different, for Saudi citizens, between a large number of U.S. troops and a relatively small drone base, which makes the latter less significantly offensive than the former. Maybe there have been so many hints and suggestions of such a base that people had time to get used to the idea.

Or maybe something about Saudi Arabia has changed during the past 20 years, such that what might have once caused wide public outrage no longer does. It is still an austere, deeply conservative and politically oppressive country, but it has not been totally immune from the Middle East's two turbulent and ideologically charged decades.

Whatever the reason for the relatively mild reaction so far, it will be interesting to see if that changes. We'll be watching.

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Max Fisher · February 8, 2013