The Dhahran Airfield was an airfield operated by the United States from 1945 until 1962. The military relationship that exists today between the United States and Saudi Arabia was highly influenced by the origin and development of this airfield.
During World War II, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula were important staging and shipping routes for the U.S. to provide both lend-lease assistance to Russia, as well as supply the allied forces fighting the Imperial Japanese forces in Asia.
Owing to Saudi Arabia’s importance, primarily its location, in 1943 the US extended lend-lease status to Saudi Arabia, one of only three Arab countries to receive this aid. In 1944, the U.S. War Department (renamed in 1949 the United States Department of Defense) proposed building an airbase in or near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
In 1945, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia agreed signed the Dhahran Air Field Agreement. This agreement permitted the U.S. to build a small air field near the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) town. The use of the term “air field”, as opposed to “air base” was a direct result of U.S. sensitivity of Saudi Arabia’s concerns regarding imperialism. Further, full ownership of the airfield was scheduled to revert to Saudi Arabia at the conclusion of the war, after an agreed-upon three-year period during which the U.S. would have the rights to operate the field.
Despite the end of World War II in the European theater, in 1945, President Harry S. Truman signed the Agreement, which owing to the lack of any military justification, and again a reflection of Saudi Arabia’s concerns regarding imperialism and the symbolism of foreign bases on their soil, was promptly rejected by the King. The War Department, likewise, dropped their support of the project. However, the U.S. State Department, recognizing the economic benefits of this location, and the diplomatic benefits afforded by the agreement, continued to pursue development of the Dhahran Air Field. After Congress approved substantial economic development assistance, the U.S. State Department and the Saudi Government agreed, in August 1945, to develop the air field. Ironically, the War Department was forced to foot the cost of the construction.
In 1948, when the originally agreed-upon three-year post-war period of U.S. operations came to a close, the agreement was renegotiated. While the airfield had not been completed until 1946, too late to be of any benefit for World War II logistics (its original justification) it did provide benefits in the late 1940s, specifically in the context of the increasing tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union. In 1949 Dhahran airfield was the only airfield in the area which could support the United States Air Force’s B-29s. Thus, the airfield took on increasing importance in the U.S.’s eyes as one location in the U.S. strategy of the containment of communism. For Saudi Arabia, the base provided an element of security from the U.S. forces posted there, among Saudi Arabia’s growing concerns regarding their neighbors, particularly Yemen, and the Hashemites of Iraq and Transjordan. The 1948 agreement reverted ownership of the air base to Saudi Arabia, and on-going year-to-year leases, for which the U.S. would pay rent. As part of the U.S. concession for this on-going access to the air base, the U.S. agreed to send a military team to Saudi Arabia to consult on the Saudi defenses.
Broader military relationship
The agreed-upon military survey team, under the leadership of Colonel O’Keefe, arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1949, and the resultant 50-page “O’Keefe Report”, submitted to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in January 1950, provided the "first comprehensive U.S. plan for building a modern Saudi armed forces.”
In 1951 the year-to-year leasing agreement was retired in favor of what eventually became known as the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, one component of which was the deployment of U.S. military personnel to the Kingdom to provide military training to Saudi Arabia. These personnel were the forerunners of what became the United States Military Training Mission (USMTM). USMTM was established on June 27, 1953 and is still a fundamental component of the US/Saudi military relationship.
Recent history and commercialization
Through the 1950s, the Dhahran airfield began to emerge as a commercial transportation hub, as the nearby Dammam oil fields increased the overall economic viability of the area. Additionally, Trans World Airlines began using Dhahran as a hub for increasing transport to and from Asia and Europe.
The Dhahran airfield, and the emerging support facilities, became the Dhahran International Airport in 1961.
The United States finally abandoned its claims to the Dhahran air field in 1962.
Dhahran served a significant role in the 1994 evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel from Yemen, when that country slid into civil war. Also, in 1996 after the bombing of the Al Khobar Towers, in Operation Desert Focus, in which over 6,000 U.S. citizens and personnel were relocated within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Dhahran airfield continued to serve as the Eastern Provinces commercial and military air hub until the completion, in 1999, of the King Fahd International Airport near Dammam.
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