Saudi Arabia has deployed more troops in the oil-rich Eastern Province and cancelled some military leave amid worries of fresh unrest stoked by Iran and regional tensions, Saudi government sources and diplomats said on Thursday.
A Saudi government source said that top commanders, in a directive issued on June 26, ordered extra security forces to be stationed in the kingdom’s crude-producing east, home to a majority of the country’s Shiite population.
The source said Saudi troops were put on alert and summer leave was cancelled for some officers but “those already on holiday are are not being called back.”
Western diplomats confirmed that holidays for troops had been suspended since the end of June.
Speculation of an Israeli attack on Iran, locked in a stand-off with Western powers over its disputed nuclear programme, is again on the rise. The West believes Iran’s nuclear work is aimed at producing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Israel has hinted it may attack Iran if diplomacy fails to secure a halt to nuclear enrichment. The United States has also mooted military action as a last-resort option but has frequently nudged the Israelis to give time for intensified economic sanctions to work against Iran.
Iran has threatened to destroy US military bases across the Middle East and target Israel within minutes of being attacked, according to Iranian media reports last week.
Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the region, fears that any Israeli attack on Iran could provoke retaliatory strikes on its territory, or it might ignite protests on its territory.
The shooting down of a Turkish jet plane by Iran’s regional ally, Syria, has ratcheted up tensions and increased worries of an imminent conflict, the sources said.
“It’s been the norm for a long time that the National Guard is ready for back-up for any security threat,” the source added.
The source said that up to 1,200 additional National Guard members — an elite corps led by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s son Prince Miteb that handles domestic security — had been sent to the Eastern Province.
“The deployment has been taking place as a show of force … a deterrent policy,” he said, adding that the total count of National Guard forces in the region was now more than 3,000.
Officials from the Interior and Foreign Ministries referred calls to the Defence Ministry and no spokesman was available to comment.
Columnist David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post on Thursday, said that Saudi Arabia had alerted some of its military and security officials to cancel their summer leaves.
“Saudi and US sources say this limited mobilisation reflects worries about possible military conflict with Iran, the war of succession in Syria, and Sunni-Shiite tensions in neighbouring Bahrain,” he wrote.
Saudi Arabia has already accused Iran of fomenting unrest in the Qatif region of the Eastern Province and in Bahrain, charges Tehran denies.
Western diplomats confirmed that more Saudi security forces have been deployed to the Eastern Province, saying it was related to Iran but gave no further details.
Two Saudi nationals died during protests with police in the Qatif region this month after a Shiite cleric was arrested.
Saudi Arabia has already taken some precautionary steps against the possibility of Iran shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, including the reopening of an old pipeline built by Iraq to bypass the strait and export more crude via the Red Sea terminals.
Analysts played down the likelihood of Iran being able to stir up protests in eastern Saudi Arabia.