Two seasoned commentators, Abdel Bari Atwan and M.K. Bhadrakumar, note the recent snag in U.S. - Saudi relations. Writes Atwan:
The past two weeks have seen an unprecedented rise in tensions between the two sides, which could lead to political and economic standoffs in the days and months to come. Several recent developments attest to this. Last week the Associated Press, well known for its connections to Washington decision-makers, confirmed that the Biden administration has withdrawn all its Patriot and (more sophisticated) THAAD air defence systems from the kingdom.
Then it was announced that a visit to the kingdom by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin – as part of a Gulf tour that included Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain — had been postponed or cancelled, ostensibly due to ‘scheduling issues’. That was an unprecedented snub reflecting official Saudi anger at the US.
A minor Saudi prince, Sattam Bin-Khaled Al Saud, was assigned to explain that it was Saudi Arabia that called off the visit. The ‘great kingdom’, he tweeted, would not be dictated to, and would only conduct relations on the basis of ‘shared interests and mutual respect’. No ruling family member has spoken about the US this way previously.
The young royal, who is close to Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman, went on to contrast the cancellation of Austin’s visit with the very warm reception the kingdom accorded to Leonid ####sky, head of the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee. This was intended as a warning to Washington that Riyadh potentially has an alternative ally in Moscow — a ‘brave’ but potentially risky and very costly challenge.
There was also the recent publishing of FBI findings about Saudi involvement in 9/11. And on Afghanistan the U.S. worked with Qatar instead of using Saudi channels. But both issues are neither new nor do they justify such a response.
The incipient signs of a US retrenchment from Saudi Arabia have appeared in a series of moves in the past 2-3 weeks.
Without doubt, the Biden Administration has just made a big statement in its regional strategies in West Asia by the removal of the most advanced US missile defence system and Patriot batteries deployed to Saudi Arabia to counter Iran and face down air attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Riyadh showed its displeasure already by abruptly cancelling a scheduled visit to the kingdom by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.
I doubt that this snag is really about the two Patriot batteries and one THAAD system which the U.S. brought into Saudi Arabia after the 2019 attack on the Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq.
Everyone knows that those systems are pretty much useless against the drones the Houthi (or Iran) had used in that attack. The removal of these system has been anticipated for some time. In April the Saudis rented a Patriot battery from Greece in anticipation of the removal of the U.S. systems. The actual removal of the U.S. systems was announced in early June. Back then a Saudi spokesman said that his country had no problem with it:
US military assets downsizing in Saudi Arabia will not affect the kingdom’s defense capabilities, a Riyadh-led coalition told local press, Sunday. In a statement to the reporters, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said that the tactical withdrawal of the United States troop and Air Defence units in the Arab Gulf region will “not affect Saudi,” adding that there is a strong understanding between the kingdom and its allies and partners in the region and that the country is capable to defend itself.
I doubt that the military view on the Patriot issue has changed much since then.
But on September 9 the Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal mentioned the Patriots in an interview with CNBC:
He was responding to a question on what the Middle East needs from the U.S. in the wake of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
"I think we need to be reassured about American commitment," the prince, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, told CNBC's Hadley Gamble last month.
"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," he said.
For Turki Al-Faisal the Patriots are a symbolic, not a military issues. The core problem is a lack of 'assurance about U.S. commitment'.
Pulling Patriot missiles from the kingdom is "not indicative of America's declared intention to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against outside enemies," Al-Faisal said, adding that he hopes the U.S. will give assurances of its commitment to deploy "whatever is needed" to help.
Who are the Saudis outside enemies? The Houthi in Yemen? Biden had announced to end support for Saudi attacks in Yemen back in February. He correctly believes that the Saudis have lost that war and should end it. His position on that is not a surprise and has not changed. Why would the Saudis now make an issue out of it?
So what is the Saudi concern really about?
Bhadrakumar seems to thinks that the U.S. is ready to find a new agreement with Iran and that this is the issue the Saudis are disturbed about. But the door on a nuclear deal with Iran is closing and there is no sign from the Biden administration that it really wants to reactivate it.
In my view the real issue here can not be the Patriot missiles, the Houthi, or an Iran deal. None of those issues is new or is coming as a surprise.
What else might it have been that would justify to cancel, on very short notice, a planned visit by a U.S. Secretary of Defense?
Such a move is unprecedented in its outright hostility. There must be a really big and current issue behind it.
The minor Saudi prince Atwan quotes lamented about the 'great kingdom' being 'dictated to'. What was the 'diktat' about? The harsh reaction lets me presume that it was something very personal to Clown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who runs the daily business in Saudi Arabia.
Did Biden order him to fully retreat from Yemen, a war the crown prince had started?
Might Biden even have asked the King to replace the crown prince with a more agreeable figure?
Or are there other issues I have not thought about?
Posted by b on September 14, 2021 at 18:08 UTC