WASHINTON: The US has transferred a significant number of Patriot antimissile interceptors to Saudi Arabia in recent weeks as the Biden administration looks to ease what has been a point of tension in the increasingly complicated US-Saudi relationship.
A senior administration official confirmed on Sunday that the interceptors have been sent to Saudi Arabia.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that has not been formally announced, said the decision was in line with President Joe Biden’s promise that “America will have the backs of our friends in the region.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday condemned Houthi forces in Yemen after they unleashed one of their most intense barrages of drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia’s critical energy facilities, sparking a fire at one site and temporarily cutting oil production at another.
The US moved its own Patriot defense system from Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh in September even as the kingdom continued to face air attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The kingdom has insisted that the interceptors are critical to their defense against Houthi attacks.
The Saudis have been locked in a stalemate war with the Houthis since March 2015.
At the time the US Patriot systems were moved out of the kingdom, administration officials said the shift in defense capabilities was made in part due to a desire to face what American officials see as the looming “great powers conflict” with China and Russia.
Pentagon officials noted that the US maintained 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.”
The US-Saudi relationship has been strained since Biden took office. The president has refused to deal directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has removed the Houthis from a list of designated terrorist groups.
The Biden administration last year released a declassified intelligence report concluding that the crown prince, son of the aging King Salman and known as MBS, had authorized the team of Saudi security and intelligence officials that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The crown prince insists he was not involved in the operation carried out by Saudi operatives.
The White House dispatched Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, and the State Department’s energy envoy, Amos Hochstein, to Riyadh last month to talk to Saudi officials about a range of issues – chief among them the ongoing war in Yemen and global energy supplies.
The Saudi-led coalition has said that the Houthi rebels launched four attacks on the kingdom that damaged civilian cars and homes but caused no casualties, state media reported.
Early on Sunday, one attack targeted a water desalination plant in the city of Al Shaqeeq, an Aramco facility in Jizan, a power station in the southern Dhahran al Janub city, and a gas facility in Khamis Mushait.
This latest attack comes as Aramco prepares to announce its 2021 results on Sunday.
The coalition fighting in Yemen since 2015 said the latest Houthi escalation by targeting economic and civil facilities was a response to a Gulf call for talks.
On Wednesday, the UN voiced disappointment after a donors’ conference raised $1.3 billion, far short of the $4.27 billion targets.
The Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plans to invite Yemeni parties including the Houthis for consultations in Riyadh this month, two Gulf officials told said on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Houthis said they would welcome talks with the Saudi-led coalition if the venue is a neutral country, including some Gulf states, and that the priority is lifting “arbitrary” restrictions on Yemeni ports and Sanaa airport.
In a statement, the coalition added the latest escalation included ballistic missiles, drones, and cruise missiles. It also said it is detecting and monitoring drones in the sky and intercepted a ballistic missile that aimed at targeting civilians in Jizan.
State media posted images and videos of the damage caused by the attacks.
There was no immediate comment from Houthi leaders.