As the US administration gets cold feet about its commitment to the Gulf states, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is out looking for missile-defense systems, and a major candidate is Israel.
A report from the Associated Press (AP) on 11th September said that the Western nation has emoved 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.
The reports, that have been confirmed by Breaking Defense that American THAAD and Patriot batteries have been quietly removed from Prince Sultan Air Base, located outside of Riyadh. These were installed in the Kingdom following an attack allegedly by Iran or Houthi forces on the Saudi oil production facilities in 2019.
In wake of this the reports have emerged about Riyadh reaching out to Tel Aviv for the procurement of Israeli-made missile defense systems, Breaking Defense reported.
The media agency reported that Saudi Arabia is looking for alternatives from China, Russia, and even Israel.
The top contenders among the defense systems include the Iron Dome, produced by the State of Israel and proven effective against short-range rockets, or the Bakar ER, produced by Israel Aerospace Industries, and used to intercept cruise missiles.
The deal between the two nations has even received a green signal from Washington. A source told Breaking News that the Saudi, “interest in the Israeli systems has reached a very practical phase.”
It is worth mentioning that the low-level talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel for the procurement of these systems have been ongoing for several years, but things sped up with Washington’s withdrawal from Riyadh.
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Even without being a formal part of the Abraham accords, which normalized relations between UAE and Bahrain and Israel, Saudi Arabia has had strategic relations with Israel, exchanging security information.
It is worth mentioning that 13th September marked the first anniversary of the accords, and UN ambassadors of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco at a New York event on Monday, highlighting the swift development of ties between their countries since the normalization agreements were inked.
If the Saudis were to buy the Israeli systems, it could open the option up to more fully to the nations covered in the Abraham Accords.
In a November interview with Defense News, Moshe Patel, the head of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization, commented on the possibility of equipping accord allies (UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan) with the technology, “Of course we are very glad to have those peace agreements. In regard to our work, we continue to do whatever we can. And since we have the same enemies, maybe we are going to have some mutual interests. I think that there is a potential to enlarge our defense partnership in the future, of course together with the U.S.”
He added, “But I can tell you that it’s step by step; it’s not a revolution that could be made in one day. Maybe in the future, we could enlarge those capabilities.”
US withdrawal from Riyadh
The US withdrawal from Riyadh was a long time coming, but the step has definitely worried some Gulf nations.
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, AP reported.
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 cold, cold reality. And the perception is very clear that the U.S. 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.
He added, “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.”
In an interview with CNBC on 9th September, Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal said that Saudi Arabia and the Middle East need to be reassured of American commitment.
“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,” he said.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby agreed with, “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.
“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.”
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“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.