In a dramatic move even by his own mercurial standards, Donald Trump has authorized the withdrawal of two Patriot missile systems guarding Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, accompanied by hundreds of American military troops operating them. They were deployed last September after a massive cruise missile and drone attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure — blamed on the Iranians but claimed by their allies the Houthi rebels in Yemen — that knocked about half of the kingdom’s production capacity offline.
Now Saudi Arabia has just two Patriot batteries, located at Prince Sultan Air Base in the middle of the Saudi desert. They are not there to protect the royal family and its economic resources, but rather the estimated 2,500 American soldiers stationed at the remote military hub. And in yet more bad news for the Saudis, two US jet fighter squadrons have just left the region, and the US Navy presence in the Persian Gulf is also being wound down.
Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of an oil-for-security pact between the US and Saudi Arabia that has been a lynchpin of American engagement in the region for 75 years, but especially so since the 1979 Iranian revolution? Given Trump’s habit of changing his mind from one minute to the next, not least when it comes to his Middle East strategy, one cannot be certain, but at this stage it certainly looks that way.
After all, the sudden withdrawal of US military assets comes just weeks after Trump told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a fiery phone call that unless OPEC cut oil production to raise prices he would be powerless to stop US lawmakers from passing legislation to withdraw American troops and military hardware from the kingdom. The Saudis complied 10 days later, but because of unprecedented oversupply, and the historic lack of demand because of the coronavirus lockdowns, oil prices have failed to rebound significantly. Trump has clearly lost all patience with bin Salman and has carried through with the threat of withdrawing military support unilaterally — perhaps as one final attempt to coax the Saudis into further action on oil cuts.
The President himself was uncharacteristically reticent yesterday when asked about the decision, only remarking: ‘We’ve been taken advantage of all over the world, our military.’ But no one should doubt just how furious Trump is with bin Salman for destroying the US fracking industry by recklessly launching his oil price war with Russia in March. US fracking employs, directly and indirectly, as many as 1.7 million people, mostly in key Republican battleground states Trump must win to get re-elected in November. While his new anti-Saudi military stance will not bring back the lost jobs, it will not hurt him either on the campaign trail.
It was left to anonymous officials to rub salt into Bin Salman’s wounds. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story of the Patriot missile withdrawal, quoted a bunch of them as saying the Pentagon’s removal of the anti-missile batteries, as well as the other reductions, were based on assessments by some Pentagon advisers that Tehran ‘no longer poses an immediate threat to American strategic interests’. In other words: if Iran launches another missile strike, the Saudis will be on their own. This is an extraordinary admission that, given his new focus on China as Enemy Number 1, Trump is no longer prioritizing the containment of Iran.
Trump will, of course, be accused of flip-flopping having stood by bin Salman through thick and thin over the past four years while risking Iranian fury by taking out Republican Guard major general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike at the beginning of the year. In reality, he is resorting to his instinctive hatred of the Saudi royals — he spent most of his time as a Republican candidate attacking Saudi Arabia as an unreliably ally and terror sponsor — and internecine Middle East conflicts. No one should, therefore, be surprised if in the coming weeks and months there is a corresponding softening in his administration’s stance on the Iranian nuclear deal.