Saudi Arabia has appealed to the United States and its allies in Europe and the Gulf for resupplies of ammunition it uses to defend the kingdom against drone and missile attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday (paywall), citing US and Saudi officials.
Riyadh has been using its Patriot surface-to-air missile system over the past several months to thwart weekly ballistic missile and drone attacks launched by Houthi rebels based in Yemen, the officials told the WSJ. But the kingdom’s stock of Patriot missiles to intercept aerial attacks has run dangerously low.
The call for resupplies comes after the US has scaled back a large of portion its military presence in the Middle East that shored up the kingdom’s security as the administration of President Joe Biden pivots to counter China’s growing prowess on the global stage.
Though the US is expected to approve the Saudi request for more Patriot interceptors, Saudi officials told the Journal they are concerned that insufficient stocks could result in a successful missile or drone attack, costing lives in the kingdom or harming the Saudi economy by damaging its critical oil infrastructure.
In 2019, a swarm of missiles and drones successfully evaded Saudi’s air defenses and temporarily knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil production. That attack was claimed by Houthi fighters, but the US and Saudi Arabia have said Iran, which is aligned with the Houthis, was directly behind the offensive.
US and Saudi officials told the Journal that the kingdom was attacked by drones more than 50 times during October and November and suffered more than 20 ballistic missiles attacks across the same period.
Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, said last week that Houthi rebels have conducted about 375 cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia this year.
Saudi Arabia spearheaded a military offensive against Yemen launched in 2015 in support of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi shortly after the Houthis took control of the capital of Sanaa. Across nearly seven years of fighting, both sides in the conflict have been accused of committing human rights abuses and atrocities. Fighting recently centred around the northern city of Marib, the last government stronghold in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled north.
While the US initially provided “logistical and intelligence” support to the Saudi-led campaign, Biden in February announced that the US was ending support for all “offensive operations” in Yemen. The administration said it would continue to support the kingdom’s ability to defend itself.
Still, the situation represents the latest test for US-Saudi relations, which the Biden administration has sought to reshape in light of the October 2018 murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul.
A US intelligence report concluded the agents were acting on the command of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who maintained close ties with former US President Donald Trump.
While Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state on the campaign trail, like many presidents before him, he has taken a pragmatic approach towards relations with the kingdom. His administration elected not to sanction MBS after the Khashoggi report became public and has moved ahead with a planned $650m deal to export 280 Raytheon-made missiles and 596 missile launchers to the kingdom.
A bipartisan group of US legislators are expected to attempt to block that deal in the coming days.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Riyadh is asking Washington for “hundreds more” Patriot interceptors manufactured by Raytheon Technologies Corp and that a direct sale is being considered by the State Department. The Journal said the kingdom has also approached European allies and Qatar about transferring Patriot interceptors to its arsenal, but such a deal would require approval from the US, two officials told the newspaper.
“The United States is fully committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s territorial defense, including against missiles and drones launched by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen,” said a senior administration official in statement to the Wall Street Journal. “We are working closely with the Saudis and other partner countries to ensure there is no gap in coverage.”
Beyond the threat of increased civilian deaths, the US and other allies have a keen interest in protecting Saudi Arabia’s fossil fuel infrastructure. Though the US is the world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia has the lowest production costs on the planet and its output swings can dramatically impact global oil prices – and by extenstion what Americans pay at the pump for gasoline.
Last month, Saudi-led OPEC rebuffed a request by Biden to boost output more aggressively to cool oil prices, prompting the US and other nations to tap their strategic oil reserves instead to ease energy inflation.