PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, SAUDI ARABIA — The American jet fighters take off and land in rapid succession, rising above the shimmering airfield and screeching toward Iraq, or coming home from patrol.
The flight line is crowded with dozens of F-15 and F-16 jet fighters, transports, and AWACS - the largest concentration of US air power in the Middle East, and one that few Saudis will ever see.
The "special" relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US has come a long way since 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt aptly met King Abdel Aziz on an American warship off the coast of Egypt.
But despite the longstanding ties that essentially trade Saudi oil for US security, internal politics on both sides complicate the picture.
The 5,000 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia are kept at arm's length, for their protection and for the protection of the Saudi people. In Washington, meanwhile, pro-Israel lobbies seek to limit sales of US military hardware to Saudi Arabia military that they deem a potential future threat to the Jewish state.
"Saudi is like other Arab allies - when tension rises in the area, it is tough for our friends," says a Western diplomat. "The relationship is fundamental, but to Arab leaders the US is a domestic liability. It's a constant balancing act."
Most US Air Force personnel here can count the number of Saudis they have seen on the fingers of two hands. To further isolate - and protect - the US forces after the bombing at Khobar Towers last year, the Air Force moved its entire operation in a few weeks from Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, to this base south of Riyadh.
Security is top priority, and the Saudis permitted US forces to resuscitate this old base and 13,000-foot runway that was built during the Gulf War. The Saudis provide all jet fuel for free, and pay for much of the food. "The most important thing in this [US] strategy are friends and access," says US Air Force Brig. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, the 4044th Wing commander.
Units here fly 40 to 50 sorties a day to ensure that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein does not violate the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. They are also an integral part of the 20,000-strong US troop presence in the Gulf. But there have been difficulties: "The Saudis are deeply pragmatic," notes a diplomat. "This is not a marriage of love, but of convenience. It is tolerable."
One griping point for American officials has been the slow investigation of the Khobar bombing and lack of Saudi cooperation with US investigators. They want results and suspects, and have blamed the Saudis for delay. But many here ask: Would the US ever allow foreigners to investigate an act of terror carried out of US soil?
"The Saudis will punish the crime, but they will not comb the desert for a fingernail for a DNA test," says another Western diplomat. "They have a different concept of time. It is like a fly in a cafe, and one man has a rolled newspaper. He doesn't chase the fly, but waits for it to land in front of him. Then he kills it."
American officers also note that the desert kingdom is not alone in facing terrorism, though US troops have been targeted twice in two years and the US Embassy in Riyadh receives a constant stream of anti-American threats.
"It's not just Saudi," says Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeffery Martin, a security specialist whose hometown of Bradford, Ohio, is smaller than this base. "It's everywhere - at the Olympics, in Oklahoma."
For the Saudis, the "special" relationship has also become a classic question of guns versus butter. Saudi living standards have tumbled from a high in the early 1980s to a per capita income of $6,800, which is on a par with Mexico. But from 1990 to 1995, the government bought $62 billion on arms from the US alone.
"It's easy to blame the West for selling fancy toys [to the Saudis]," says a European diplomat. "But people are confident that even if they buy arms, the US is very capable of coming in."
That last of 280 billion barrels still beneath Saudi sands is likely to be pumped a century from now, officials here estimate.
The Saudis are working on a multibillion dollar air-defense system that began operation last year, and when complete, will be the most sophisticated air defense network. "We have learned a lot from our Gulf War experience," says Saudi Maj. Gen. Abdullah al-Wosaimir.