United States removes ‘certain air defence assets’ from Saudi Arabia

The United States has removed its most advanced missile defence systems from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks amid ongoing cross-border attacks levied by Yemen’s Houthi movement, The Associated Press has reported.

The news agency analysed satellite footage of the Prince Sultan air base, which previously had a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit and a missile defence system in addition to Patriot missile batteries. The satellite imagery, taken by Plant Labs Inc, showed that as of the end of August several of those batteries were no longer at the air base.

A high-resolution image taken on Friday showed that the batteries’ pads at the site remained empty, with no visible activity in the immediate area, AP reported.

Following enquiries from the news agency, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed that “certain air defence assets” had been moved. Still, he said the US maintained a “broad and deep” commitment to its allies in the region.

“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 US national interests and our regional partnerships,” Kirby told AP.

Tens of thousands of American forces remain across the Gulf as a counterweight to Iran and in support of other US interests.

Meanwhile, the Saudi defence ministry told AP that the kingdom’s relationship with the US remains “strong, longstanding and historic,” even while acknowledging the withdrawal of the American missile defence systems. It said the Saudi military “is capable of defending its lands, seas and airspace, and protecting its people”.

“The redeployment of some defence capabilities of the friendly United States of America from the region is carried out through common understanding and realignment of defence strategies as an attribute of operational deployment and disposition,” the statement said.

Nevertheless, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, told CNBC on Thursday that the kingdom needs “to be reassured about 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,” Prince Faisal said during the interview.

US President Joe Biden has pushed to end the Yemen conflict since assuming office, with his administration announcing plans early on to pull offensive support for the Saudi-led military campaign fighting Houthi rebels.

Biden also announced at the start of his presidency that his administration was reviewing arms sales to Riyadh, and that the White House would deal directly with the 85-year-old King Salman, not the country’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, also known by his initials MBS.