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.
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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 Yemen’s 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 kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen in the first days of President Joe Biden’s administration.
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.
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