The generally reliable Wall Street Journal, citing an unnamed but knowledgeable source, has reported that Joe Biden’s administration is considering “sharply reducing the number of US anti-missile systems in the Middle East in a major realignment of its military footprint there”. Many politicians, both in the Persian Gulf region and in the US, responded by playing down the significance of this report, but there has been no official statement on the subject. But, as they say, nevertheless, there is no smoke without fire.
The official silence seems quite natural – it is important to keep the number and location of the rockets a secret to prevent any enemy from using this information to carry out troop movements or launch an attack. Military experts claim that any relocation or withdrawal of troops or hardware should be kept secret. That is a basic maxim of strategy. After all, when two Saudi oil processing plants, the Abqaiq refinery in the east of the country (the largest in the world), and the Khurais refinery, were attacked by drones on September 14 2019, the whole world was able to see how easy it was for the attackers to achieve their goal. After all, it is no secret that Saudi Arabia is covered with US anti-missile systems and is home to numerous US military bases equipped with the latest fighter aircraft, and the Pentagon is always insisting that it has full control over the kingdom’s air space. It seems that the attackers were knew exactly how to avoid the Saudi and US anti-missile systems.
Although the Wall Street Journal, citing its an anonymous insider in the US military, referred to the administration’s most recent decision as a “major realignment” of its military policy, in fact only eight Patriot batteries are being relocated – from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram was informed by a source based in the Persian Gulf that “there has been no actual reduction, and any potential movements of American troops or hardware in the region will have no effect on the Persian Gulf nations’ defense capabilities”. The source added that the region was protected by a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system, which was even more powerful than the Patriot system. It appears from US media reports that Patriot’s manufacturer, the US defense contractor Raytheon, is currently experiencing various difficulties in manufacturing and servicing the anti-missile system rockets. This has been confirmed by the Wall Street Journal, which claims, citing an unnamed source in the Pentagon, that rocket batteries have been withdrawn from operation for technical servicing. The WSJ also claimed that according to a report published in April by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), two out of three airborne tests conducted as part of the work on integrating the Patriot and THAAD systems have failed due to software problems.
The withdrawal of the rocket batteries coincides with the Biden administration’s expedited withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and other countries in the region, and the WSJ’s recent report has prompted a great deal of speculation all over the world, but particularly in the Middle East. As the Saudi commentator Abdulaziz Al-Hamiz wrote in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram: “I think this is an attempt to exercise geopolitical pressure – and a rather foolish move by the Democrats”. In reality, it gives the Persian Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, a good reason for diversifying their military purchases. Riyadh could start buying military hardware from China, Russia, or some other country. “But I do know that the US are just testing the waters – this is not a serious cutback in US military support, the Saudi commentator emphasized.
Upon closer consideration, it will be seen that there are some positive aspects to these latest decisions by the Pentagon. In reality, if these reports are true then the new policy may have the positive effect of encouraging the Arab nations – particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to work together and build up their own arms sector. This may lead to new partnerships aimed at developing local production- not only with America, but with Russia, China and other countries. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have developed strong relations with South Korea and France, and are working together on research and development projects which may considerably boost domestic arms production in both Gulf nations.
These reports have also come at a time when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels based in Yemen have stepped up their attacks on Saudi Arabia. Although the Patriot system is not used to stop drone attacks, it can – to a certain extent – help bring down other rockets that cross the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. That is why the Houthis have increased their use of drones to carry out attacks in recent months. But Saudi Arabia’s air defense systems are now bringing down the majority of these drones – although a few are still managing to make it past the highly-rated US anti-missile system and cause serious damage to Saudi military facilities.
There is little doubt that over the last few years the Gulf nations’ military purchases have enabled them to upgrade their anti-missile systems and the Arab countries in the region are now better equipped to defend themselves against foreign enemies -if they have any. That is why, even if this latest news is actually true, it may not be that important. Dr. Andrew Hammond, a specialist in the Middle East from Oxford University, does not expect the move to surprise the Persian Gulf countries. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, he pointed out that “the extra systems were only placed in Saudi Arabia as a political move to cover up for the fact that Trump was not going to take more military action against Iran after the Aramco and tanker attacks and the Suleimani assassination.” He was referring to “the surge” of military assistance by the Trump administration to Saudi Arabia after the drone and missile attack on oil facilities in the east of the kingdom in September 2019.
It is unclear whether or not the US government’s decision to leak the news to a US paper has any connection with a possible rapprochement between the US and Iran – but Dr. Hammond considers this unlikely. In his opinion this not aimed at putting pressure on Iran. He believes that if the rockets were necessary to pressurize Iran, they would have been placed in Saudi Arabia before 2019. In his view, it was a purely political decision. Instead of announcing that a nuclear deal is on the way – which is probably the case anyway – it implies that the US does not see the region as in a conflict situation at the moment, and that the regional powers are unlikely to take any decisive steps.
We could also add that President Biden’s administration has already suspended several contracts for the supply of arms to the US’s Arab partners, in order to review them and, presumably, increase the price. The contracts in question were concluded with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and include a contract for the supply of fifty Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets. In public statements Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has agreed not to stop the supply of the expected hardware to the two Gulf nations, but added that the US was stopping its support for the Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. The F-35 planes are a key part of the $23 billion of high tech military hardware being purchased by the UAE from General Atomics, Lockheed and Raytheon Technologies Corp. The Democrats in the Congress immediately supported this decision. According to Democrat Senator Chris Murphy, this decision is justified, as “the time has come to reset our relationship with our allies in the Persian Gulf”. Democrat Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Chairman of the Senate Committee for International Relations, has said that he welcomes the suspension of sales, as these were”rushed into without a good reason and without or sufficient analysis of their impact on US national security”.
In the same vein, Timothy Lenderking, the US Special Envoy for Yemen, departing from the official line set by Washington, has stated that the United States recognizes the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement as a legitimate party in Yemen. His actual words were: “The United States recognizes them [the Houthis] as a legitimate actor… We recognize them as a group that has made significant gains.” Another of his remarks is of particular interest: “The Houthis don’t own the set of violence alone. Obviously the Saudi-led coalition has borne its share of responsibilities as well.”
In other words the Biden administration is trying to follow a new course in the Middle East. On the one hand, the US is putting pressure on its allies, especially Saudi Arabia, by delaying the supply of military hardware under existing contracts and withdrawing some of its anti-missile systems, which, by the way, has the effect of intimidating the Arab leaders. On the other hand, we are seeing the beginning of a change of course in the political arena, especially in Washington’s policy in relation to Yemen – the first acceptance that the Arab coalition led by Riyadh and personally headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud bears the responsibility for war crimes committed in that country. But the Saudi Crown Prince has committed many offences in Washington’s eyes, including, to name just one, the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime who had frequently written for the US media. After that crime one is tempted to remind the US of the old adage – a man is known by the company he keeps.
At present, whatever steps the Biden administration takes, we can be sure that the US, and especially the Pentagon, has no intention of abandoning the Arab nations to their fate, and letting Russia, China, Turkey or Iran dictate their destiny. Everything will carry on just as before, and Washington’s overall strategy is unlikely to change very much. But it will still continue with these tactical maneuvers, blowing smoke in the eyes of many of the less experienced Arab leaders and beguiling them with impossible dreams.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” .