US’ sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan and collapse of the Afghan government has left many American allies especially in the Middle East and Asia Pacific utterly disturbed.
The recent relocation of the American air defense system from the Kingdom may have raised anxieties in Saudi Arabia and pushed the oil-rich nation closer to Russia.
Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman and his Russian counterpart last month signed an important military cooperation agreement at an arms expo during the former’s visit to the capital Moscow.
Prince Khalid announced the agreement in a tweet, stating that the deal was “aimed at developing joint military cooperation between the two countries.” He acknowledged his meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, which he said was aimed at “exploring ways to strengthen the military and defense cooperation” between Russia and the Kingdom.
The signing of a military cooperation agreement between the two countries at a time when the US was leaving Afghanistan was seen as a significant development. Saudi Arabia has been a US ally for decades and has relied on the country for all its security needs.
US’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan bequeathing power to Taliban, experts say, may have been the final nail in the Saudi-US security relationship. The Kingdom which has traditionally relied upon its ally America in defense matters no longer trusts Washington under the new Biden administration, they opine.
Met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to explore ways to strengthen the military and defense cooperation between our two countries. We discussed our common endeavor to preserve stability and security in the region, and reviewed shared challenges facing our countries. pic.twitter.com/T7lVdITZPt
— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) August 23, 2021
The recent defense deal with Russia may be the start of a radical foreign policy shift by Saudi Arabia in light of the new geopolitical realities shaping up in the middle east after the defeat of Donald Trump in the US elections.
Biden administration’s attempts to engage Iran by renewing the Obama-era nuclear deal complicates the matters while further upsetting the Saudi-US strategic partnership.
The latest US decision to pull out its advanced missile defense systems such as Patriot and THAAD systems from the Kingdom has further angered the Saudis. This development came on the backdrop of continued Iranian and Houthi missile strikes on Saudi oil installations and airports.
The withdrawal of the air defense system by the US may have left Saudi Arabia exposed to renewed strikes from Yemen, where the belligerent Houthis have been armed by incessant Iranian missile and attack drone supplies.
The Islamic Kingdom, at this juncture, the experts say, may be forced to finally seal the S-400 air defense system deal with the Russians which it has been toying with for many years.
The system is capable of protecting the kingdom from increasing Iranian-backed missile attacks and will help to secure its assets amidst an unstable neighborhood.
The satellite images obtained by AP in late August of Prince Sultan Air Base, 115 kilometers (70 miles) southeast of Riyadh, appear to show the locations of the batteries’ pads empty, indicating the equipment had been moved by the US forces.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show the 🇺🇸 U.S. has removed its most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from 🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. pic.twitter.com/FgVgaXrdhr
— INTELSky (@Intel_Sky) September 11, 2021
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby confirmed to AP that the “redeployment” of air assets had indeed taken place, although he also said the U.S. maintained a “broad and deep” commitment to its Mideast allies. Kirby said the Defence Department continues to maintain “tens of thousands of American forces in the Middle East,” along with significant air and maritime capabilities.
In an interview with CNBC last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, showed his concern about the new development.
“I think we need to be reassured about American commitment,” he continued, “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 al-Faisal’s comments reflected a general feeling of resentment amongst the Saudi royal family towards the evolving US middle east policy.
The US acknowledges its shifting focus from the ever-turbulent middle east to new threats, which are Russia and China. That explains the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the relocation of the air defense system from the middle east to other locations.
Biden’s refusal to continue with the Trump administration’s soft approach to the human rights issues in Saudi has led to further consternation among the royal family. Ever since he assumed office, Biden continues to give a cold shoulder to all issues raised by the Saudi leadership, not showing any signs of a compromise in favor of a healthy bilateral partnership.
On the other hand, Russia will happily oblige to overlook any human rights issues or any other obligations and unconditionally sell the most advanced air defense system in existence to the Saudis. There may not be an option other than securing its skies with the S-400, the experts opine.
How Powerful Is The Patriot Missile
Looking at the record of the Patriot air defense missiles at places where it has been deployed, the performance of the American system has been dismal.
The interception ability of these missiles has been dismissed as being a disappointment. In fact, one expert, Jeffrey Lewis, says the system the US and its allies rely on is a “lemon.”
Lewis has closely analyzed the attacks on Saudi installations by the Houthis and claims that it was “unlikely” that the missiles were shot down despite the government claiming otherwise.
“The point is there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has intercepted any Houthi missiles during the Yemen conflict. And that raises a disquieting thought: Is there any reason to think the Patriot system even works?”
The US had constituted a House Committee on Government Operations, which leveled serious charges against the US government, along with the manufacturer Raytheon.
“The Patriot missile system was not the spectacular success in the Persian Gulf War that the American public was led to believe. There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War, and there are some doubts about even these engagements,” the report claimed.
It also charged the administration and Raytheon representatives with “misleading” the public by showing false successes during and after the war.
Ever since its military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is facing increasing threats from hostile forces in the region with over 850 drone and missile strikes launched at the Kingdom since 2015, according to government claims. The attacks have been growing in terms of scale and complexity, with sensitive installations becoming prime targets.
Therefore, the Kingdom cannot afford to compromise on its defense capabilities. The country has faced attacks from multiple directions, which include Iraq, Yemen, Iran, which employ low-altitude, multi-vector attacks to confuse conventional air defense systems.
An asset like the S-400 may be the panacea for the Kingdom’s problems, for now, Nitin J Ticku says. He, however, adds that this deal could be a big setback to Saudi-US ties and could witness a downturn in bilateral relations just like the US and Turkey.
- Younis Dar is a senior defense journalist. Younis has studied journalism from the prestigious Indian Institute of Mass Communication. An avid science geek, Younis likes to report and write on defense, space and technology, climate, renewable energy and other subjects. He can be reached at [email protected]
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