0405 GMT December 09, 2021
The redeployment of the defenses from Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh came as America’s Persian 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, Persian 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.
“Perceptions matter whether or not they’re rooted in a cold, cold reality. And the perception is very clear that the U.S. is not as committed to the [Persian] 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.”
Prince Sultan Air Base, some 115 kilometers (70 miles) southeast of Riyadh, has hosted several thousand U.S. troops since a 2019 missile-and-drone attack on the heart of the kingdom’s oil production by the Houthi fighters.
Just southwest of the air base’s runway, a one-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. A high-resolution Planet Lab satellite picture taken Friday showed the batteries’ pads at the site empty, with no visible activity.
The withdrawal came just as a retaliatory drone attack by Houthi fighters on Saudi Arabia wounded eight people and damaged a commercial jetliner at the kingdom’s airport in Abha.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged “the redeployment of certain air defense assets” after receiving questions from the AP. He said the U.S. maintained a “broad and deep” commitment to its Mideast allies.
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 claimed the Saudi military “is capable of defending its lands, seas and airspace, and protecting its people.”
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.
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 declined to discuss why Austin’s trip didn’t happen after the withdrawal of the missile defenses.