The Biden administration ordered the military to remove its most advanced missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia. The eight defensive Patriot Missile batteries were positioned in the Prince Sultan Air Base, approximately 70 miles southeast of Riyadh. The base also hosts one advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense unit (THAAD) that can destroy ballistic missiles at a higher altitude than Patriots.
This withdrawal comes in the face of intensified missile and drone attacks carried out by the Iranian proxy Houthi rebels in Yemen. Just two weeks ago, two drone attacks hit the Abha airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia, wounding eight people and damaged a commercial jetliner.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged “the redeployment of certain air defense assets” after receiving questions from the Associated Press. He said the US maintained a “broad and deep” commitment to its Mideast allies.
“The Defense Department continues to maintain 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 U.S. national interests and our regional partnerships,” Kirby said.
Despite this statement, an upcoming visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Saudi Arabia was just canceled.
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, was critical of the move.
“I think we need to be reassured about American commitment,” the prince told CNBC in an interview aired this week. “That 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.”
Houthi air attacks
Saudi Arabia is constantly targeted by Houthi air attacks and in 2019, a drone attack targeting an oil facility halted half of the country’s oil production. Though the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, it is believed that it was carried out by Iran. At the orders of President Trump, the US deployed two Patriot Missile batteries to Saudi Arabia in response to the attack.
The civil war in Yemen began in 2014. The war has killed some 130,000 people and generated the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Pulling back from Saudi Arabia, cozying up to Iran
In February, one month after entering office, Biden ended support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations against the Houthis. Biden claimed at the time that he would prioritize diplomatic solutions to the conflict.
“This war has to end,” Biden said. “And to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
The Biden administration had previously placed a temporary freeze on billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as saying that it would review the transfer of advanced military hardware, including air-ground munitions.
The move is of grave concern to US allies in the region coming in the wake of the disastrous pullout from Afghanistan. It should be noted that the groundwork for the US military withdrawing from Afghanistan was laid several months in advance when the US stopped providing air support to the Afghan army and withdrew the contractors who serviced the Afghan air force.
The Biden administration is currently engaged in the sixth round of talks with Iran in Vienna intended to jump-start the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Biden was vice president when the hugely divisive Obama-brokered deal was signed in 2015.