Is the Once-Strong US-Saudi Relationship Having Problems?
The decision taken by the United States Department of Defense to scale down its military firepower deployed to Saudi Arabia — a key allied country in the oil-rich and strategically important Gulf region — has sparked a wave of speculations regarding the reasons and timing of such an American step.
Reports of the pullout were first published in the Wall Street Journal and later circled by a number major American and international media outlets, that the US was pulling some Patriot missile batteries and two squadrons of jet fighters along with hundreds of troops out of Saudi Arabia.
Mere Maintenance, Carrot and Stick or Something Else?
An American official confirmed the decision Thursday, which comes amid tensions between the Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration over oil production. Two other Patriot batteries that are currently deployed in the Middle East region are also reported to be heading back to the US in a planned redeployment for maintenance and upgrades.
However, according to the US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations, “the decision removes two batteries that were guarding oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, but leaves two Patriot batteries at Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert, along with other air defense systems and jet fighters.”
Plummeting Oil Prices, Internal US Politics or Simply “Milking the Cow”?
Analysts are divided over the actual reason of the decision, with many questioning whether the ongoing oil dispute or the struggle to parcel out the much-coveted Patriot systems was the key factor in the US decision to pull Patriot systems, squadrons of fighter jets and hundreds of American troops out of Saudi Arabia.
Other observers believe that the US move could be no more than a bargaining chip by US President Donald Trump to ” get even more milk out of the Saudi cow,” following a historic collapse in oil prices that is bound to have a grave impact on major regional as well as world economies . They support their theory by frequent Trump public statements that all oil-rich Arab states should pay dearly for US protection of their thrones. Moreover, they highlight recent remarks many Republicans in the US Congress had already made, in which they accused Saudi Arabia of aggravating instability in the oil market, already badly hit because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They claim that the price crash and volatility in the oil market hurt U.S. shale producers, leading to layoffs in the industry, particularly in Republican-run states. Some Republican senators went late March as far as warning that if Saudi Arabia did not change course, it risked losing American defense support and facing a range of potential tariffs and other trade restrictions, investigations and even sanctions.
Nightmarish Reminders of Deadly Drone and Missile Attacks
A number of key Aramco oil installations were targeted last year by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The drone attacks brought oil production in the Kingdom to a virtual halt for some time, before costly repair works were completed. The raids forced the rulers of Saudi Arabia then to call for two urgent Arab and Islamic summits in order to muster support for the kingdom which relies heavily on oil production to maintain its economy and growth plans announced by the powerful, controversial and virtual ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
Fresh in their minds are the deadly January 8 missile attacks on US targets within Ain Al Assad air base in Baghdad, Iraq , in retaliation for the US assassination a few days earlier, of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps top general and mastermind, Qassim Soleimani along with 10 of his aides including his key man in Iraq, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandes, deputy commander of the so-called Al Hashd Al Shaabi (Popular Crowd), whose fighters played a major role in crushing ISIS and forcing its remnants to flee across the desert into Syria.
ISIS terrorists were eventually decimated by the Syrian army as well as by US-backed Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria. Kurdish SDF forces are thought to be holding thousands of ISIS fighters as prisoners, along with tens of thousands of their families in al Hawl Camp in northern Syria. ISIS leader and “Caliph” of the so-called Islamic State in the Levant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in an American operation targeting his hide away bunker near Idlib, Syria on October 26-27 of last year.
US Move Brings Up More Questions Than Answers
The new US drawdown on American military presence in Saudi Arabia comes just months after the Pentagon began a military buildup there to counter threats from Iran. About 300 troops that staff the two batteries would also leave Saudi Arabia, according to the US official. Some observers who favor the “rising US-Saudi tension” theory, argue that little has changed in the Gulf region to justify the decision to withdraw sensitive Patriot batteries and jet fighters whose main task was to protect major oil facilities as well as American and allied bases and troops in Saudi Arabia should Houthi attacks continue or a conflict with Iran breaks out
Tensions between Iran and the US along with its Arab allies in the Gulf remain high, despite a tentative and cautious a calm every now and then. Attacks on and reciprocal seizing of oil tankers last year in the region’s strategic Strait of Hormuz and far beyond, and memories of the devastating missile and drone attacks on key oil installations in Saudi Arabia are still as vivid as ever. With Saudi officials at home or in their Washington embassy refraining from commenting on the latest development, the US military scale down in Saudi Arabia brings up more questions than answers.