Several indicators debunk a body of analysis in international and Arab media interpreting the US announcement of withdrawing some US Patriot missile batteries deployed in Saudi Arabia as Washington censuring Riyadh, ostensibly because the latter caused the US’s oil crisis by competing with Russia to drive the price of global oil into the ground. The first indicator is that the oil pricing war between Moscow and Riyadh ended nearly one month ago. US President Donald Trump tweeted 13 April: “And the World gets back to business from the Covid-19 disaster, the Energy Industry will be strong again, far faster than currently anticipated. Thank you all of those who worked with me on getting this very big business back on track, in particular Russia and Saudi Arabia.”
Trump’s gratitude to Saudi Arabia, especially, negates any theory that he is punishing Riyadh. Washington understands that the oil crisis is due to several reasons that Saudi Arabia is not responsible for. The Covid-19 pandemic and closures across the globe was certain to send oil prices into a tailspin. The drop in prices, even if it hurt the shale oil industry in the US and benefits its rival China — which imports nearly 12 million barrels a day — has enabled the US to greatly pressure Russia and Iran which heavily rely on oil exports for revenue. Also, Washington’s oil reserves have reached full capacity at the lowest price.
A second indicator is the refusal of US officials to link the withdrawal of Patriot systems to Saudi Arabia’s role in the oil crisis. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “This step is not intended to impact the security of Saudi Arabia. We are doing all we can to guarantee its security and providing it with air defence systems so Iran cannot threaten it.”
It is difficult to accept the punitive interpretation of the move because it does not make sense, in light of Trump’s repeated admission that Saudi Arabia is picking up the tab for deploying Patriot missiles in Saudi Arabia and protecting the kingdom from the Iranian threat. He would not shoot himself in the foot amid the ongoing gruelling economic crunch and take a decision that halts lucrative revenue for the US.
A third indicator is that withdrawing a small number of Patriot batteries is not a significant reduction of the massive US military presence in the Gulf region. Reports show there are five US military bases in the Gulf region, and 54,000 US soldiers in 12 military bases in the Middle East. The decision to withdraw the missiles did not include another 12 Patriot batteries and one THAAD battery that can intercept ballistic missiles at high altitudes.
All this means US presence in the region remains strong and can protect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries from any Iranian military threat.
Another reason mentioned in some media about the decision is that the US believes the Iranian threat against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region has subsided recently, therefore reducing US military presence in the Gulf makes sense. However, this interpretation is unfounded since withdrawing such a small number of missiles cannot be considered a real reduction of US military presence in the Gulf, and there are regional developments that could force Iran to focus pressure on Washington’s allies in the Gulf, and increase the Iranian threat on Saudi security especially. This would prevent the US from reducing its military commitment in the region to safeguard its interests first, and its Gulf allies second.
For example, an article published in Israel Times on 5 May reported that unnamed Israeli officials said Israel’s military effort in Syria appears to be bearing fruit since Iranian troops have started to evacuate several military bases under their control. If this is true, it means that Iran has decided to de-escalate in Syria, perhaps to focus on a more important battle with the US and its Gulf allies. This would be a game-changer and raise the threat against Gulf countries, not curb it.
Trump does not want to reassure Iran. After Congress voted in March to rein in Trump’s powers to attack Iranian targets to avoid all-out war, Trump responded with a veto and finally Congress failed to reverse his veto last week since Republicans control 53 votes versus 47 Democrats, and a two-thirds majority is required to reverse a presidential veto.
In conclusion, there is no other explanation for the much-debated US move to withdraw Patriot systems from Saudi Arabia than to look at it as a routine rearrangement of US forces overseas. It should not be seen as a sign of deteriorating relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, or Washington shirking its duty of protecting the Gulf in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. In fact, Washington took a similar decision in September 2018 by withdrawing four missile batteries from Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain without a murmur. Washington’s explanation that this was routine maintenance, replacement and upgrades was accepted, which are the same reasons given by US officials for last month’s decision.
Two years ago, observers were not as animated about the withdrawal as they are today, even though statements by US Navy Commander Sean Robertson assert: “The [Pentagon] maintains robust in-theatre capabilities, including air defence, to address any Iran-related contingencies as needed. We also maintain the capability to augment these forces on short notice.”
Even Trump reassured: “Well, I don’t want to talk about it. But we’re doing some things. 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. We’ve been taken advantage of all over the world.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly