“Perceptions matter whether they are rooted in a cold, cold reality or not. And the perception is very clear that the US is no longer as committed to the Gulf as it used to be, according to many decision-makers in the region, ”said Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Order at Rice University.
“From a Saudi perspective, you now see Obama, Trump and Biden – three consecutive presidents – making decisions that are to some extent a task.”
Prince Sultan Air Base, about 70 miles southeast of Riyadh, has stationed several thousand U.S. soldiers since a rocket and drone strike in 2019 on the heart of the kingdom’s oil production. This attack, though claimed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, appears instead to have been carried out by Iran, according to experts and physical debris left behind. Tehran denied the attack, despite the fact that Iranian paramilitaries used similar drones during an exercise in January.
Directly southwest of the air force base’s runway, an area of three square kilometers formed by an earthen berm housed American forces Patriot missile batteries and an advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense unit, according to satellite imagery from Planet Labs Inc. THAAD can destroy ballistic missiles at higher altitudes than patriots.
A satellite image seen by the AP in late August showed that some of the batteries had been removed from the area, although activity and vehicles could still be seen there. A high-resolution satellite image from Planet Lab, taken on Friday, showed that the pads on the batteries at the site were dead and with no visible activity.
There have been rumors of missile relocation rumors for months, in part out of a desire to face what American officials see as the looming “great powers” conflict with China and Russia. The withdrawal came just as eight people were injured in a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia and an airliner was damaged at the Kingdom’s airport in Abha. The kingdom has been in a stalemate with the Houthis since March 2015.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed “the relocation of certain air defenses” after receiving questions from the AP. He said the US has maintained “broad and deep” engagement with its allies in the Middle East.
“The Department of Defense continues to maintain tens of thousands of armed forces and a robust force position in the Middle East, representing some of our most advanced air and naval forces, to support US national interests and our regional partnerships,” said Kirby.
In a statement to the AP, the Saudi Department of Defense described the kingdom’s relations with the US as “strong, longstanding and historic,” despite recognizing the withdrawal of US missile defense systems. It states that the Saudi military is “able to defend its country, its seas and its airspace, and to protect its people”.
“The relocation of some of the defense capacities of the friendly United States of America from the region takes place through a common understanding and realignment of defense strategies as an attribute of operational setup and disposition,” the statement said.
Despite these assurances, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, whose public statements are often linked to the thoughts of his ruling Al Saud family, has linked the Patriot missile operations directly to America’s relationship with Riyadh.
“I think we need to calm down in the face of American engagement,” the prince told CNBC in an interview broadcast this week. “It looks, for example, as if Patriot missiles are not being withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, while Saudi Arabia is falling victim to rocket and drone attacks – not just from Yemen, but from Iran.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who has been on a tour of the Middle East for the past few days, was scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia but the trip has been canceled due to scheduling issues American officials called. Saudi Arabia declined to discuss why Austin’s trip did not take place after the missile defense withdrew.
Saudi Arabia maintains its own Patriot missile batteries and typically fires two missiles at an incoming target. This has become an expensive proposition during the Houthi campaign as each Patriot missile costs more than $ 3 million. The kingdom also claims to intercept almost every missile and drone launched on the kingdom, an incredibly high rate of success that has previously been questioned by experts.
While Greece agreed to lend Saudi Arabia a Patriot missile battery in April, the timing of the US withdrawal lies amid heightened uncertainty over US stance in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have renewed diplomacy with Iran as a safeguard.
“I think we saw Biden’s statements on Afghanistan saying things that he will clearly put US interests first, and that has obviously been quite a disappointment for partners and allies around the world who Perhaps they hoped for something different after Trump, ”said Ulrichsen, the research associate. “It sounds a lot like an ‘America First’ approach, just a different tone.”