Traveling among the Gulf States this week after addressing the Manama Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Al Udeid Air Base outside of Doha, Qatar. The base, known inside the Pentagon as the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), was not classified, but its location was kept secret to the extent that journalists who visited the facility had to sign nondisclosure agreements. Though the announcement (and visit) is likely a response to regional criticisms of U.S. policy, the move represents a “major step forward” for transparency, according to the New York Times.
Qatar has enjoyed a military-to-military relationship with the U.S. since the signing of an agreement in 1992 following Operation Desert Storm. Most security assistance has come in the form of over $3.3 million in Anti-Terrorism Assistance (under the Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, De-mining, and Related Programs) as well as cooperative efforts that, according to the above-cited CRS report, include “defense exercises, equipment pre-positioning, and base access agreements.” In 2003, the CAOC was relocated to Al Udeid from Prince Sultan Airbase in Al Karj, Saudi Arabia. Since the move, the base has served “as logistics, command, and basing hubs for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan.” Over 3,000 U.S. military personnel (primarily Army) are currently stationed at Al Udeid, and the base has been used extensively in the last ten years to launch combat sorties and reconnaissance flights.
Hagel’s decision to reveal the base (and lift the journalist “gag order” on identifying its location) comes amidst fears that the U.S. is “abandoning” the Middle East. Following the Manama Dialogue, Hagel’s visits to both Saudi Arabia and Qatar were focused on addressing concerns about the interim nuclear agreement recently signed with Iran. Hagel also sought to ensure allies that the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will not lead to a lighter American footprint in the region. Speaking at the base, Hagel remarked: “Our partners are going to be as important – and probably more so – than they’ve ever been for our own national security, for their national security.”