According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, the Biden administration is removing some military capabilities and forces from Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region. The reduction is seen as an effort to shift the US military’s focus away from the Middle East towards so-called “great power” competition with Russia and China, as outlined by the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
The report said the US has removed at least three Patriot antimissile batteries from the Gulf region, including one from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. Unnamed US officials told the Journal that the US is considering moving other capabilities out of the region. Under consideration is removing a THAAD air defense missile system, although the officials said it will remain in the Middle East for now.
The removal of military capabilities from the region likely means a reduction in troops. According to the report, as of late 2020, there were 50,000 US troops in the region, down from about 90,000 two years earlier.
The reported reduction of forces in Saudi Arabia comes after President Biden said he would end all “offensive” support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen. But the Journal report made it sound like the reduction is more about reorienting resources to face Russia and China rather than cutting off support for the Saudis.
Despite Biden’s vow to end support for the war in Yemen, the Saudis are still launching airstrikes and enforcing a blockade on the country, despite UN warnings that 400,000 Yemeni children will starve to death this year if conditions don’t change. Since the war is still on, Houthi drone and missile attacks inside Saudi Arabia continue.
The officials told the Journal that the Pentagon set up a “tiger team” made up of US military officials to figure out how to help Riyadh protect its oil facilities. Options for assisting the Saudis include more weapons sales, if they can be framed as “defensive weapons,” and increased intelligence sharing and training. Biden froze certain sales of offensive weapons to the kingdom, and the Pentagon is now trying to define what defensive weapons could be sold.
The Trump administration sent thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia in 2019, the first time since 2003 that US soldiers were deployed to the country. The US military presence in Saudi Arabia throughout the 1990s was one of Osama bin Laden’s main recruitment tools for al-Qaeda.