WASHINGTON: Despite their deepening political divide, the United States and Saudi Arabia are quietly expanding defense ties on a vast scale, led by a little-known project to develop an elite force to protect the kingdom's oil riches and future nuclear sites.
The US also is in discussions with Saudi Arabia to create an air and missile defense system with far greater capability against the regional rival the Saudis fear most, Iran.
And it is with Iran mainly in mind that the Saudis are pressing ahead with a historic $60 billion arms deal that will provide dozens of new US-built F-15 combat aircraft likely to ensure Saudi air superiority over Iran for years.
Together these moves amount to a historic expansion of a 66-year-old relationship that is built on America's oil appetite, sustained by Saudi reliance on US military reach and deepened by a shared worry about the threat of al-Qaida and the ambitions of Iran.
All of this is happening despite the Saudi government's anger at Washington's response to uprisings across the Arab world, especially its abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president who was a longtime Saudi and US ally.
The Obama administration is eager to ease this tension as it faces the prospect of an escalating confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia is central to American policy in the Middle East. It is a key player in the Arab-Israeli peace process that President Barack Obama has so far failed to advance, and it is vital to US energy security, with Saudi Arabia ranking as the third-largest source of US oil imports.
It also figures prominently in US efforts to undercut Islamic extremism and promote democracy.
The forging of closer US-Saudi military ties is so sensitive, particularly in Saudi Arabia, that the Pentagon and the State Department declined requests for on-the-record comment and US officials rejected a request for an interview with the two-star Army general, Robert G. Catalanotti, who manages the project to build a “facilities security force” to protect the Saudis' network of oil installations and other critical infrastructure.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to two written requests for comment. Details about the elite force were learned from interviews with US officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Saudi security concerns, as well as in interviews with private analysts and public statements by former US officials.
The special security force is expected to grow to at least 35,000 members, trained and equipped by US personnel as part of a multiagency effort that includes staff from the Justice Department, Energy Department and Pentagon. It is overseen by the US Central Command.
The force's main mission is to protect vital oil infrastructure, but its scope is wider. A formerly secret State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks website described the mission as protecting “Saudi energy production facilities, desalination plants and future civil nuclear reactors.”
The cable dated Oct. 29, 2008, and released by WikiLeaks in December said the Saudis agreed to a US recommendation to create the program after they received an Energy Department briefing on the vulnerability of certain oil facilities.
The program apparently got under way in 2009 or 2010, but it is not clear how much of the new force is operating.
The Saudis' security worries were heightened by a failed al-Qaida car bombing in February 2006 of the Abqaiq oil processing facility, one of the largest in the world.
The State Department cable said a subsequent US assessment of Abqaiq security standards determined that it remained “highly vulnerable to other types of sophisticated terrorist attacks.”
That warning was conveyed to top Saudi officials on Oct. 27, 2008.
“The Saudis remain highly concerned about the vulnerability of their energy production facilities,” the cable said.
“They recognize many of their energy facilities remain at risk from al-Qaida and other terrorists who seek to disrupt the global economy.”
One US official said the Saudi force's mission might be expanded to include protection of embassies and other diplomatic buildings, as well as research and academic installations.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
The newly established specialized force is separate from the regular Saudi military and is also distinct from Saudi Arabian National Guard, an internal security force whose mission is to protect the royal family and the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina.
The US has had a training and advising role with the regular Saudi military since 1953 and began advising the National Guard in 1973.