The decline in Saudi missile stockpiles was confirmed by US and Saudi officials, who said that the crisis is mainly related to missiles that can counter drones and ballistic missiles, which prompted Riyadh to seek help from Washington and even its Gulf and European allies, according to the American Wall Street Journal.
The escalation of attacks
Over the past several months, Saudi Arabia has been subjected to attacks from the Houthis, which escalated rapidly, and varied between the launch of about a dozen ballistic missiles and strikes by drones, within one week. Although the Saudi military has successfully repelled most missiles with its Patriot surface-to-air missile system, its arsenal of interceptors has been seriously reduced, these officials said.
A Saudi government official said the number of attacks on the kingdom had increased dramatically. Drones have struck Saudi territory 29 times last month and 25 times in October. The country was also subjected to about 11 ballistic missile attacks last month and 10 in October. Saudi air defenses intercepted a ballistic missile over Riyadh on Monday (December 06, 2021). The Defense Ministry said that the missile exploded due to ground defenses, but its fragments spread in several residential neighborhoods without causing any damage.
The US special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Linderking, said in a forum on Friday (December 3, 2021) that the Houthis carried out about 375 cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2021, according to what the Wall Street Journal reported. With Patriot missile interceptors, continued Houthi attacks could lead to significant loss of life or damage to vital oil infrastructure. In January, the Houthis bombed buildings belonging to the royal court, but no one was hurt.
A debate between the White House and Congress
On Tuesday (December 8, 2021), the US Senate rejected a bill that would have blocked the proposed sale of advanced AIM-120S medium-range air-to-air missiles, rocket launchers and other weapons to Saudi Arabia. The draft resolution was rejected by 67 votes to 30. Republican members of the House of Representatives Rand Paul and Mike Lee, as well as Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party, had introduced the bill to block the proposed $650 million arms deal to Saudi Arabia.
The White House opposed a resolution that would have blocked the proposed sale of 280 medium-range air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia, 596 rocket launchers, as well as other equipment and support. The White House Office of Budget Management said in a statement that a Senate resolution on the matter would “undermine the President’s commitment to help support our partner’s defenses at a time of increasing missile and drone attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia.”
While many US lawmakers regard Saudi Arabia as an important partner in the Middle East, members of Congress have also criticized the kingdom over the war in Yemen, which the United Nations says has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Lawmakers refuse to approve arms deals to the kingdom without assurances that US equipment will not be used to kill civilians. Supporters of the sale noted that the Biden administration had already blocked the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The United States has to support
The Biden administration has announced more than once its strong opposition to the draft resolution that calls for preventing the completion of the arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The approval of a decision to block the transaction “would undermine the President’s commitment to help support our partner’s defenses at a time of increasing missile and drone attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia,” the White House Office of Budget Management said in a statement. The White House Office of Budget Management said in a statement that the Senate’s decision “would undermine the President’s commitment to help support our partner’s defenses at a time of increasing missile and drone attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia.”
Analysts consider that the Saudi government’s appeal to the United States for assistance and support is a test of the extent of the United States’ commitment to the Middle East, especially to Riyadh, as the Biden administration has attempted to reshape the relationship between it and Saudi Arabia on a range of issues including human rights, the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the recent incident. The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Despite their concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and other issues, US officials believe they have an obligation to help the oil-rich kingdom defend itself, especially as the United States battles high oil prices. A complex attack in 2019 hit Aramco’s oil facilities, forcing Saudi Arabia to suspend some production for a while. The Houthis attacked a major Saudi oil port in March, but caused no damage. “The United States is fully committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s regional defense,” a senior administration official said in a statement. “We are working closely with the Saudis and other partner countries to ensure that there is no gap in coverage.”
In November, the US State Department approved and was notified of the sale to Saudi Arabia of a system known as the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile System, for $650 million. The Saudi government had ordered 280 missiles and 596 missile launchers to defend the kingdom against such attacks.
Continued military support is not a solution
But within the US administration, experts believe that supplying Saudi Arabia with more interceptor missiles will not solve the problem in the long run, as the interceptor missiles cost about one million dollars per piece, but the drones used by the Houthis are small in size, easy to manufacture and relatively inexpensive, as the price of some of them may reach 10 The Saudi official said: “The attacks carried out by armed drones launched by terrorist militias constitute a relatively new global security threat, and the means to deal with it are developing.”
According to arms experts, despite Saudi Arabia’s possession of the advanced Patriot system, Riyadh remains vulnerable, because the Patriot missile system is designed to counter ballistic missiles, not small drones. US officials told the Wall Street Journal that Patriot batteries cannot rotate 360 degrees, for example, which limits their effectiveness against drones. In at least one case, officials said, a drone flew into the back of a Saudi Patriot missile battery, destroying it.
The United States does not have a formal program to counter drone attacks and will not be able to transfer anti-aircraft technology to the Saudi government anytime soon, say experts familiar with the development of drone technology.
A Saudi official said that his country deals with different types of missiles, ballistic missiles and drones, and that intercepting each of these weapons requires different capabilities, “and we are actively working to increase and diversify our systems so that we can counter these aerial projectiles,” according to the newspaper.
The Saudi government is demanding that the United States supply it with hundreds of other Patriot interceptor missiles manufactured by Raytheon Technologies Corp. It has also reached out to Gulf allies, including Qatar and European countries. Two US officials told the Wall Street Journal that a direct sale of the interceptor missiles to Saudi Arabia is under consideration by the State Department, and the State Department would also be required to approve any transfers from another government such as Qatar.
Biden had raised during his election campaign the slogan of changing the policy of selling American arms to allies in the Gulf, and he also canceled deals signed by his predecessor Donald Trump with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which raises question marks about the directions of the American administration and the policies that Biden has long criticized and is now back to follow. But it seems that Saudi Arabia has become in a very awkward position, which prompted the Biden administration to put aside those principles he brought to the White House and intervene to support one of the most important allies of the United States in the region.