DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.S. has removed its most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, even as the kingdom faced continued air attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show.
The redeployment of the defenses from Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh came as America’s Gulf Arab allies nervously watched the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, including their last-minute evacuations from Kabul’s besieged international airport.
While tens of thousands of American forces remain across the Arabian Peninsula as a counterweight to Iran, Gulf Arab nations worry about the U.S.’s future plans as its military perceives a growing threat in Asia that requires those missile defenses. As negotiations in Vienna remain stalled over Iran’s nuclear agreement with the world powers, tensions are high. This raises the risk of further confrontations in this region.
“Perceptions matter whether or not they’re rooted in a cold, cold reality. According to Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, the U.S. has lost its commitment to the Gulf.
“From the Saudi point of view, they now see Obama, Trump and Biden — three successive presidents — taking decisions that signify to some extent an abandonment.”
Just southwest of the air base’s runway, a 1-square-kilometer (third-of-a-square-mile) area set off by an earthen berm saw American forces station Patriot missile batteries, as well as one advanced Terminal High Altitude Area 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 AP in late August showed some of the batteries removed from the area, though activity and vehicles still could be seen there. The site’s batteries were found empty in a satellite image taken by Planet Lab on Friday. There was no activity.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged “the redeployment of certain air defense assets” after receiving questions from the AP. After being questioned by the AP, John Kirby from Pentagon acknowledged that “the redeployment of certain air defense assets” was occurring. He stated that the U.S. had a “broad 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.
In a statement to the AP, the Saudi Defense Ministry described the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S. as “strong, longstanding and historic” even while acknowledging the withdrawal of the American missile defense systems. It said the Saudi military “is capable of defending its lands, seas and airspace, and protecting its people.”
“The redeployment of some defense capabilities of the friendly United States of America from the region is carried out through common understanding and realignment of defense strategies as an attribute of operational deployment and disposition,” the statement said.
Despite those assurances, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief whose public remarks often track with the thoughts of its Al Saud ruling family, has linked the Patriot missile deployments directly to America’s relationship to Riyadh.
“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.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on a tour of the Mideast in recent days, had been slated to go to Saudi Arabia but the trip was canceled due to what American officials referred to as scheduling problems. Saudi Arabia refused to explain why Austin’s visit didn’t take place after withdrawal of missile defenses.
Saudi Arabia maintains its own Patriot missile batteries and typically fires two missiles at an incoming target. This is a costly proposition due to the Houthi campaign. Each Patriot missile can cost more than $3million. The Kingdom also claims that it has intercepted nearly all missiles and drones launched against the country, a remarkable success rate previously doubted by experts .
While Greece agreed in April to lend a Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia, the timing of the U.S. withdrawals comes amid wider uncertainty over the American posture in the region. As a precaution, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab nations have resumed diplomatic relations with Iran.
“I think we saw in Biden’s statements on Afghanistan, the way he said things that he’s clearly going to put U.S. interests first and obviously that came as quite a disappointment to partners and allies around the world who maybe hoped for something different after Trump,” said Ulrichsen, the research fellow. “He sounds quite similar to an ‘America First’ approach, just sort of a different tone.”
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.