Saudi Arabia to replace US missile defenses at oil sites, relations strong: Experts

A Patriot missile battery is seen near Prince Sultan air base at al-Kharj on February 20, 2020. (File photo: AFP)

Saudi Arabia will replace two US missile defense batteries at oil sites and will still be able to defend itself from any Iranian aggression, according to experts in the field who said the move did not affect strong US-Saudi relations.

The US has removed two of its four Patriot anti-missile units from the Kingdom, leaving two more at Prince Sultan airbase. The move is part of a reorganization of its missile defense capabilities in the region, with two Patriot units sent to Iraq and two others withdrawn back to the US.

Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, told Al Arabiya English: “The removal is only of two Patriot batteries that were brought to protect two squadrons of American fighters that are being rotated out, so it may not be signal of much.”

The Kingdom is well placed to defend itself from any aggression regardless of the redeployment of the anti-missile units, added Dr. Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi Arabian political scientist and senior research fellow at the Gulf Research Center.

Read more: US commitment to Gulf security ‘not at all changed’: US envoy for Iran Brian Hook

A US Patriot missile defense unit in action. (File photo: AP)

A US Patriot missile defense unit in action. (File photo: AP)

Some analysts suggested the decision was a sign of the US revising its stance toward the Kingdom due to differences on oil policy. However, experts on US-Saudi relations disagreed.

Alghannam said such analysis “ignores that fact that the Kingdom and Russia have reached an agreement to cut oil production starting from May, an agreement that was brokered by President Trump in early April.”

“The US understands that saving its oil shale companies from bankruptcy does not depend only cutting Aramco’s plus production, but on reviving the world’s economy that has been hit hard by the outbreak of COVID-19,” Alghannam told Al Arabiya English.

A US Defense Department Official told AFP that the missiles were only ever meant to be in Saudi Arabia temporarily, following their initial deployment in response to Iranian attacks against Saudi Aramco oil facilities in September 2019.

“I think everyone knew it was going to be a temporary plus-up at the time, unless things got bad. Things did not get bad, so they had to go,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Read more: Trump, King Salman reaffirm strong US-Saudi Arabian defense partnership: White House

Saudi Arabia capable of defending itself from Iran

The Kingdom has its own anti-missile defenses that are scheduled to replace the US Patriots.

The two US Patriot missiles would be replaced by the Kingdom’s Patriot PAC-3 hit-to-kill missile, according to an unnamed US military official cited by Bloomberg.

The Kingdom also has 40-60 CSS2 medium-range ballistic missiles and six legions of Patriot missiles to defend itself from foreign aggression.

“There are 30 Patriot PAC-3 hit-to-kill in the Kingdom, and they managed in the last few years to shoot down 311 ballistic missiles coming from Yemen and 343 drones. Coupled with THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system, which the US is keeping, the Kingdom’s oil fields, maritime shores, and its space are well protected,” Alghannam said.

Brian Hook (L), the US special representative on Iran, listens to a member of the Saudi military forces at an army base in al-Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 21, 2019. (AFP)

Brian Hook (L), the US special representative on Iran, listens to a member of the Saudi military forces at an army base in al-Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 21, 2019. (AFP)

US-Saudi ties still strong

Washington’s commitment to the security of its Arabian Gulf allies is unchanged despite what appears to be a shift in force posture in the region, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told CNBC on Saturday.

“Our mission is not at all changed. We’re standing with our partners and our allies in the region. We’re doing everything we can to protect American interests,” Hook told CNBC on Friday.

“We’re going to continue working with the Saudis, the Emiratis, all of our partners in the region.”

US President Donald Trump acknowledged the redeployment, but said it was not based on Saudi Arabia and gave few other details.

“We’re making a lot of moves, in the Middle East and elsewhere. We’re doing a lot of things all over the world militarily,” Trump said when asked about the redeployment on Thursday.

“This has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. This has to do with other countries, frankly, much more.”

Late on Friday, Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke on the phone. The two leaders reaffirmed the strong ties and ongoing defense partnership between Riyadh and Washington.

“The two leaders agreed on the importance of stability in global energy markets, and reaffirmed the strong United States-Saudi defense partnership. The President and King Salman also discussed other critical regional and bilateral issues and their cooperation as leaders of the G7 and G20, respectively,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said.

The US maintains other defense systems and fighter jets in the Kingdom, alongside its two remaining Patriot batteries.

The move comes at a time when tensions with nearby Iran remain high, with Trump recently threatening to destroy any Iranian ships that continued to harass US Navy vessels in the Arabian Gulf.

Reasons for the move

The redeployment of the missile systems had been scheduled for March, according to the unnamed US official cited by Bloomberg, who said they had been delayed due to missile attacks against US forces in Iraq that have been blamed on Iranian-backed militia.

The US Army has a limited number of the systems and they routinely must be brought home for upgrades, according to AP.

The Pentagon also told the Wall Street Journal that they regularly move troops in and out of the region and reassess their forces.

The US has also reevaluated the nature of the threat from Iran as Tehran struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic at home, calculating that moving the batteries will not affect its ability to contain Iran, or Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend itself.

“The US believes that pulling out the two Patriot missile batteries will not affect the Kingdom’s defense against Iranian missiles,” said Alghannam, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s considerable defenses of its own and the wider US presence in the Arabian Gulf.

Read more: Iranian destroyer attacks Iranian warship during drill, at least one dead: Iran TV

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:58 - GMT 06:58
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