The redeployment of Prince Sultan airbase defenses outside Riyadh came as Arab Gulf countries nervously watched the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, including their last-minute evacuations from the besieged international airport from Kabul.
As tens of thousands of US forces remain in the Arabian Peninsula as a counterweight to Iran, Arab Gulf countries are worried about US future plans as their military perceives a growing threat in Asia that requires these defenses. anti-missiles.
Tensions remain high as negotiations appear to be stalled in Vienna over the failure of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, increasing the risk of future confrontations in the region.
“Perceptions matter, whether or not they are rooted in a cold, cold reality. And the perception is very clear that the United States is not as committed to the Gulf as it was in the opinion of many decision-makers in the region, ”said Kristian Ulrichsen, researcher at the James To Baker III. Rice University Institute of Public Policy.
“From a Saudi perspective, they now see Obama, Trump and Biden – three successive presidents – making decisions that to some extent signify abandonment. “
Prince Sultan Air Base, about 115 km (70 miles) southeast of Riyadh, has hosted several thousand US troops since a 2019 missile and drone attack at the heart of the kingdom’s oil production. The attack, although claimed by Houthi rebels in Yemen, appears to have been carried out by Iran instead, according to experts and physical debris left behind. Tehran has denied launching the attack, although an exercise in January saw Iranian paramilitary forces use similar drones.
Just southwest of the airbase runway, a one-square-kilometer (about one-third of a square mile) area bordered by an earth berm saw U.S. forces station Patriot missile batteries, as well as ‘a forward high altitude air defense terminal. unit, according to satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. A THAAD can destroy ballistic missiles at a higher altitude than the Patriots.
A satellite image seen by the Associated Press news agency in late August showed some of the batteries removed from the area, although the activity and vehicles can still be seen there. A high-resolution satellite image from Planet Lab taken on Friday showed the battery pads at the site to be empty, with no visible activity.
The redeployment of the missiles had been the subject of rumors for months, in part due to a desire to deal with what US officials see as the impending “great power conflict” with China and Russia. However, the pullout came just as a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia injured eight people and damaged a commercial airliner at the kingdom’s airport in Abha. The kingdom has been locked in a dead end war with the Houthis since March 2015.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged “the redeployment of certain air defense means”. He said the United States maintains a “broad and deep” commitment to its Middle Eastern allies.
“The Department of Defense continues to maintain tens of thousands of forces and a robust position of strength in the Middle East representing some of our most advanced air and sea capabilities, in support of US national interests and regional partnerships. Kirby said.
Saudi side confirms
In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Defense called the kingdom’s relations with the United States “strong, long-standing and historic,” while acknowledging the withdrawal of American missile defense systems. He said the Saudi army “is capable of defending its lands, seas and airspace, and of protecting its people.”
“The redeployment of some of the defense capabilities of the region friendly United States of America is accomplished through a common understanding and realignment of defense strategies as an attribute of operational deployment and readiness,” he said. he declared.
Despite these assurances, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief whose public remarks often match the thoughts of his ruling Al Saud family, has linked Patriot missile deployments directly to US relations with Riyadh. .
“I think we need to be reassured about the American commitment,” the prince told CNBC in an interview aired this week. “It sounds like, for example, not withdrawing the Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile and drone attacks – not just from Yemen, but from Iran. “
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, on a tour of the Middle East in recent days, was due to visit Saudi Arabia, but the trip was canceled due to what US officials called scheduling issues. Saudi Arabia declined to discuss why Austin’s trip did not take place after the missile defenses were withdrawn.
Saudi Arabia maintains its Patriot missile batteries and typically fires two missiles at an incoming target. It became an expensive proposition in the midst of the Houthi campaign, as each Patriot missile costs over $ 3 million. The kingdom also claims to intercept almost all missiles and drones launched into the kingdom, an incredibly high success rate previously questioned by experts.
While Greece agreed in April to loan a Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia, the timing of the US withdrawals comes amid wider uncertainty over the US position in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries have renewed their diplomacy with Iran as a cover.
“I think we saw in Biden’s statements on Afghanistan, the way he said things that he is clearly going to put American interests first and obviously that was a disappointment for the partners and the allies around the world who may have hoped for something different after Trump. Said Ulrichsen. “It sounds pretty similar to an ‘America First’ approach, just kind of a different tone. “