US pulls missile defences in Saudi Arabia amid Yemen attacks

The United States has removed its most advanced missile defence system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, even as the kingdom faced continued air attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The redeployment of the defences from Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh came as Gulf Arab countries nervously watched the chaotic withdrawal of US 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 US’s future plans as its military perceives a growing threat in Asia that requires those missile defences.

Tensions remain high as negotiations appear stalled in Vienna over Iran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers, raising the danger of future confrontations in the region.

“Perceptions matter whether or not they’re rooted in a cold, cold reality. And the perception is very clear that the US is not as committed to the Gulf as it used to be in the views of many people in decision-making authority in the region,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

“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.”

2019 attack

Prince Sultan Air Base, some 115km (70 miles) southeast of Riyadh, has hosted several thousand US troops since a 2019 missile-and-drone attack on the heart of the kingdom’s oil production. That attack, though claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, appears instead to have been carried out by Iran, according to experts and physical debris left behind. Tehran has denied launching the attack, though a drill in January saw Iranian paramilitary forces use similar drones.

Just southwest of the airbase’s runway, a one-square-kilometre (about one-third of one-square-mile) area set off by an earthen berm saw American forces station Patriot missile batteries, as well as one advanced Terminal High Altitude Air Defence 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 Associated Press news agency in late August showed some of the batteries removed from the area, though activity and vehicles could still be seen there. A high-resolution Planet Lab satellite picture taken on Friday showed the batteries’ pads at the site empty, with no visible activity.

The redeployment of missiles had been rumoured for months, in part because of a desire to face what American officials see as the looming “great powers conflict” with China and Russia. However, the withdrawal came just as a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia wounded eight people and damaged a commercial jetliner at the kingdom’s airport in Abha. The kingdom has been locked in a stalemate war with the Houthis since March 2015.

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