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United States withdraws missile defenses in Saudi Arabia amid attacks in Yemen

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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 people responsible for decision-making in the region, said Kristian Ulrichsen, researcher at James A. 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 somehow signify abandonment.

Prince Sultan Air Base, some 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, an area of ​​one-third of a square mile demarcated by an earth berm saw US forces station Patriot missile batteries, as well as a forward area defense unit. terminal at high altitude, 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 PA in late August showed some of the batteries had been 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 site’s batteries were empty, with no visible activity.

A missile redeployment had been rumored for months, in part due to a desire to deal with what US officials see as the looming 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 some air defense assets after receiving questions from the PA. He said the United States maintains a broad and deep engagement with 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.

In a statement to the PA, the Saudi Defense Ministry 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 region-friendly U.S. defense capabilities is accomplished through a shared understanding and realignment of defense strategies as an attribute of operational deployment and readiness, the statement said. .

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 relations between the Americas and Riyadh. .

I think we have to be reassured about the American commitment, the prince told CNBC in an interview broadcast this week. It sounds like, for example, not pulling the Patriot missiles out of Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile and drone attacks not only from Yemen, but 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 has its own 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 Bidens’ statements on Afghanistan, the way he said things that are clearly going to put American interests first and obviously that has been quite disappointing for partners and allies around the world. entire who were perhaps hoping for something different after Trump, Ulrichsen said. , the associate researcher. It sounds pretty similar to an America First approach, just kind of a different tone.

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