The United States has in recent weeks removed its most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia, even though the kingdom has experienced continued airstrikes by the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The redeployment of the defense from the Prince Sultan air base outside Riyadh came as Arab Gulf nerves watched nervously as the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, including their last-minute evacuations from the beleagured international airport in Kabul.
While tens of thousands of US forces remain across the Arabian Peninsula as a counterweight to Iran, the Arab Gulf countries are worried about the US’s future plans as its military sees a growing threat in Asia that requires missile defense.
Tensions remain high as negotiations in Vienna come to a halt over Iran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers, which increases the danger of future confrontations in the region.
‘Perceptions matter whether they are rooted in a cold, chilly reality or not. And the perception is very clear that the US is not as committed to the Gulf as it used to be, according to many people in the decision-making authority in the region, ”says Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow at the James A Baker III. Institute of Public Policy at Rice University.
“From the Saudi point of view, they now see Obama, Trump and Biden – three successive presidents – making decisions that to some extent mean abandonment.
Prince Sultan Air Base, about 115 km southeast of Riyadh, has housed thousands of U.S. troops since a rocket and drone strike in 2019 at the heart of the kingdom’s oil production. This attack, although alleged by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, appears to have been carried out by Iran rather, according to experts and physical debris left behind. Tehran has denied launching the attack, although Iranian paramilitary forces used a similar drone in January.
Just southwest of the runway of the air base, an area of a square kilometer (about a third of a square mile) laid by an earthworm saw U.S. troops erecting Patriot missile batteries, as well as a advanced Terminal High Altitude Air Defense unit, according to satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. A THAAD can destroy ballistic missiles at a higher altitude than Patriots.
A satellite image seen by The Associated Press in late August shows that some of the batteries have been removed from the area, although activities and vehicles were still visible there. In a high-resolution satellite photo of Planet Lab taken Friday, the batteries at the site are empty, with no visible activity.
The redeployment of missiles has been rumored for months, in part because of the desire to see what U.S. officials see as the looming “great powers” with China and Russia. However, the withdrawal comes just when a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia injured eight people and damaged a commercial aircraft at the airport in Abha. The kingdom has been locked up in a stalemate war with the Houthis since March 2015.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged “the redeployment of certain air defense assets”. He said the US maintained a “broad and deep” commitment to its allies in the Middle East.
“The Department of Defense continues to maintain tens of thousands of forces and a robust position of power in the Middle East that represents some of our most advanced air force and maritime capabilities, in support of U.S. national interests and our regional partnerships,” Kirby said.
Saudi side confirmed
In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Defense described the kingdom’s relationship with the US as ‘strong, long and historic’, even though it acknowledged the withdrawal of US missile defense systems. It said the Saudi military “could defend its lands, seas and airspace and protect its people”.
“The redeployment of some defensive capabilities of the friendly United States of America from the region is carried out through general understanding and readjustment of defense strategies as a feature of operational deployment and mindset,” it said.
Despite this assurance, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former intelligence chief of the kingdom, whose public remarks often follow the thoughts of his ruling family in Saudi Arabia, linked the deployment of the Patriot missile directly to US relations with Riyadh. .
“I think we need to be reassured about American commitment,” the prince told CNBC in an interview aired this week. ‘For example, it seems that Patriot missiles are not being withdrawn from Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile attacks and drone strikes not only from Yemen but from Iran.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been on a tour of the Middle East for the past few days to go to Saudi Arabia, but the trip was canceled due to U.S. officials mentioning scheduling issues. Saudi Arabia did not want to discuss why Austin’s trip did not take place after the missile defense was withdrawn.
Saudi Arabia maintains its Patriot missile batteries and usually fires two missiles at an incoming target. It has become an expensive proposition amid the Houthi campaign, as each Patriot missile costs more than $ 3 million. The kingdom also claims to be intercepting almost every missile and drone launched at the kingdom, an incredibly high success rate previously questioned by experts.
While Greece agreed in April to lend a Patriot rocket battery to Saudi Arabia, the timing of U.S. withdrawals comes amid greater uncertainty over U.S. posture in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries have renewed diplomacy with Iran as a fence.
“I think we saw in Biden’s statements about Afghanistan, the way he said things that he would clearly put American interests first, and that was obviously a disappointment to partners and allies around the world who might have something on Trump. hoped otherwise, ‘says Ulrichsen. ‘It sounds a lot like an’ America First ‘approach, just a different tone.