US Pulls Out An Advanced Missile Defense System From Saudi Arabia
US advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries have been removed from Saudi Arabia, amid air attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The redeployment of the defenses from Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh has come at a time when the Gulf Arab countries are increasingly nervous after the problematic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and the fall of the country to the Taliban.
While thousands of American forces remain in the Arabian Peninsula as a counterweight to Iran, Gulf Arab nations worry about the US’s plans. As negotiations appear stalled in Vienna over Iran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers, there are raising concerns of future confrontations in the region and the US growing abandonment to the Gulf.
2019 Houthi attack in Saudi Arabia
A satellite image seen by the Associated Press in August spotted the absence of some of the American forces station Patriot missile batteries, but activity and vehicles could still be seen there. On September 10, a high-resolution Planet Lab satellite picture showed the batteries’ pads at the site empty, with no visible activity.
The redeployment of missiles had been rumored for months, especially after the 2019 attack. Prince Sultan Air Base, some 115 km southeast of Riyadh, has hosted several thousand US troops since a 2019 missile-and-drone attack on the heart of the kingdom’s oil production. The attack, though claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, has been speculated to have been carried out by Iran. Tehran has denied launching it, though a drill in January saw Iranian paramilitary forces use similar drones.
Nevertheless, the withdrawal effectively took place after last week’s Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia. 8 people were wounded and a commercial jetliner at the kingdom’s airport in Abha was damaged. According to the newswires, two people were recently wounded when Saudi authorities intercepted a ballistic missile fired at its oil-rich eastern region in separate strife.
Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states intervened in Yemen’s war in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Backed by Washington, the coalition has launched more than 20,000 air raids in an attempt to dislodge the rebels from power, but the war has largely been in a military stalemate, with the Houthis controlling most urban centers in the north, and UAE-aligned militias the territory in the south.
The redeployment of certain air defense assets has been confirmed by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, but he added that the US maintained a “broad and deep” commitment to its Middle East allies maintaining “tens of thousands of forces and a robust force posture in the Middle East representing some of our most advanced air power and maritime capabilities, in support of US national interests and our regional partnerships,” Kirby described.
The Saudi Defense Ministry has described the kingdom’s relationship with the US as “strong, longstanding and historic” and that the withdrawal of the American missile defense systems has been carried through “common understanding and realignment of defense strategies as an attribute of operational deployment and disposition”.
Despite those assurances, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief told CNBC about the need to be reassured about American commitment. This allegiance “looks like, for example, not withdrawing Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile attacks and drone attacks – not just from Yemen, but from Iran”, he added.
According to the AP, Saudi Arabia maintains its Patriot missile batteries and typically fires two missiles at an incoming target which has become expensive. Each Patriot missile costs more than $3m. The kingdom claims to intercept nearly every missile and drone launched at the kingdom, an incredibly high success rate questioned by experts.
In June, Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Jessica McNulty announced plans to pull out “certain forces and capabilities primarily air defense assets” this year. She further said that the move would be made in “close coordination with host nations” and that it was “about maintaining some of our high demand, low-density assets so they are ready for future requirements in the event of a contingency.”
Since US President Joe Biden assumed office, he has pushed to end the Yemen conflict and voiced his administration’s plans to pull out offensive support for the Saudi-led military campaign fighting Houthi rebels. Biden also announced at the start of his presidency that his administration was reviewing arms sales to Riyadh and that the White House would deal directly with the 85-year-old King Salman, not the country’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The timing of the US redeployment of equipment comes amid wider uncertainty over the country’s stand in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries have renewed diplomacy with Iran as a hedge. It all seems to look like Biden is clearly going to put US interests first, just with a different rhetoric to the Trump’s “America first” approach.