A few days ago the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the Biden administration was “sharply reducing the number of US antimissile systems in the Middle East in a major realignment of its military footprint there”. Gulf and US officials downplayed the report, though no official announcements were made.
Such silence is understandable: the numbers and positions of the missiles are to be kept secret if the enemy is not to take advantage of the information in some possible manoeuvre. Military experts say that troop and arms movements and withdrawals need to be contextualised; and such reports can sometimes be used to test reactions and see what comes next.
The WSJ report called the move a “major realignment” of the US military footprint, quoting an unnamed source in the US military, though, it is just moving eight Patriot batteries from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. An informed Gulf source told Al-Ahram Weekly that there was “no drawdown as such and any possible movement of American troops or arms in the region will not affect the defence capabilities of Gulf countries”. He added, “There are also the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defence] batteries, which are even better than Patriot. The American defence company Raytheon, which produces Patriot, has a production issue – not announced of course – so these redeployments could be to make up for this issue temporarily.”
The WSJ report on the other hand quoted a Pentagon source saying that the missile batteries were withdrawn for maintenance purposes. The report also noted that “two out of three flight tests, which aimed to integrate the Patriot and THAAD missile systems, failed because of software problems, according to a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in April”.
The withdrawal of missile batteries coincides with the Biden administration quickly withdrawing its military from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, and a lot of anticipation was raised by the WSJ report. Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly, “I think it is a sort of geopolitical pressure, which is a stupid attitude on the part of the Democrats. Actually this provides justification for the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia to diversify its military procurement. Riyadh can go to China, Russia or elsewhere. But I think it is just a test balloon and not a significant drawback in American military support.”
Alkhames actually perceives a positive angle. “In fact, if true, this could be a positive thing consolidating the desire for regional cooperation in domestic defence industries, especially between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This can go along with partnerships – not necessarily American only but also with Russia, China and others – to develop local production”, he said. “Saudi Arabia and the UAE have developed strong relationships with South Korea and France and are working on cooperative Research & Development (R&D) that can help domestic defence industries in both Gulf countries.”
The news also comes at a time of heightened tension with the surge in Iran-backed Houthi rebel attacks on Saudi Arabia from Yemen. Despite the fact that Patriot missiles are not used to combat drones, they do help stop missiles coming across the border. That is why the Houthis have recently increasing drone attacks. But Saudi air defences are already effective in shooting down whatever comes from the south.
Military purchases by Gulf countries in recent years have helped fortify defences in a way that makes the Gulf capable of protecting itself to a greater extent. That is why, even if the news is true it might not have very much significance. Andrew Hammond of Oxford University does not expect the move to surprise Gulf countries. He told Al-Ahram Weekly 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. He notes, “what is worrying is the indication that the United States is thinking of its rivalry with China in increasingly military terms.”
Whether or not the decision to leak the news to WSJ has anything to do with an American rapprochement to Iran, Hammond downplays the link. “It is outside the calculations of Iranian pressure. If they were necessary for Iranian pressure, they would be placed in Saudi before 2019. But it was purely political,” he suggests. “Rather than indicate that a nuclear deal is coming - which is probably the case anyway - it suggests that the US does not see the region as in a conflict situation right now. It reckons Saudi-Iran will solve their problems, or keep them manageable.”
One significant point is that the Gulf media, which is sometimes used to reflect governments’ views without the need for official announcements, completely overlooked the news.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly