Saudi Arabia has appealed to regional countries for help to replenish the depleted stock of interceptor missiles for its US-made Patriot air-defence system as Yemeni rebels ramp up rocket and drone strikes on the kingdom.
A senior US official said the Biden administration supported the moves to source missiles from the Gulf amid concerns that Riyadh’s Patriot stocks could run out in “months” given the current rate of attacks on the kingdom by Houthi rebels. The US has to greenlight transfers of the interceptors.
“It’s an urgent situation,” the official told the Financial Times. “There are other places in the Gulf they can get them from, and we are trying work on that. It may be the faster alternative [to US arms sales].”
Two people briefed on talks between Saudi Arabia and its neighbours confirmed that Riyadh had made such requests. “There is an interceptor shortage. Saudi Arabia has asked its friends for loans, but there are not many to be had,” said one of the people.
A second person said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted at the issue during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh in December and the kingdom subsequently contacted nations in the region directly.
It is not clear if Saudi Arabia’s neighbours have been able to supply it with munitions yet.
Experts said it would only be a short-term measure to help cover the time it takes for the kingdom to secure US approval for arms sales. Saudi Arabia sources most of its arms from the US but its ability to procure weapons from Washington has been complicated by bipartisan criticism of the conduct of its war in Yemen, as well as concerns about human rights abuses under Prince Mohammed’s leadership.
Another senior administration official said Washington was “working closely with the Saudis and other partner countries to ensure there is no gap in coverage”.
A third US official said the Houthi rebels, who are aligned to Iran and control northern Yemen, ramped up their assaults on the kingdom last year, launching 375 cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia, many of which targeted oil infrastructure, airports and cities.
“Responding to those attacks using those kind of interceptors means that they’re going to have a burn rate that is faster than they may have anticipated before,” the official said. “That is something that we have to deal with and the answer to that is not only more interceptors, but the answer to that is ultimately a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Yemen.”
Saudi defence systems take out the majority of projectiles. But 59 civilians have been killed since Riyadh launched its war against the Houthis seven years ago, according to Brigadier General Turki al-Malki, the Saudi defence spokesman.
He said the kingdom valued “its strong and solid partnership with the United States”. “Our military co-operation is ongoing and we will continue to work closely with our US partners in facing the threat of cross-border ballistic missiles, rockets, and UAVs [ drones],” he said.
A photo distributed by Houthi rebels shows the launch of a missile aimed at Saudi Arabia in 2018 © REUTERS
US President Joe Biden froze the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia shortly after he entered the White House and ended support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.
He pledged to reassess relations with Riyadh and has criticised the kingdom over the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and progressive Democrats are resistant to supporting the kingdom.
Last year, Washington redeployed some Patriot systems out of Saudi Arabia. Biden administration officials insist they are committed to the defence of the kingdom, and the state department has recently approved the sale of 280 air-to-air missiles. In December, the Senate rejected a bipartisan bid to block the $680m deal.
The senior US official said the 280 air-to-air missiles would be a “big help”. But he said the armaments would take time to arrive in the kingdom, adding that Riyadh needed the Patriot interceptors “in addition to that to help them tide them over”.
“This town is hard for the Saudis,” he said. “Even saying we are committed to the defence of the Saudis is a risky statement in this environment.”
Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, told a Middle East conference in November that Washington was “significantly enhancing Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend itself”.
Saudi Arabia has been fighting the Houthis since leading an Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 after the rebels ousted the Yemeni government and seized Sana’a, the capital.
Riyadh’s intervention was backed by the US and UK, but its conduct of the war drew widespread criticism and stoked pressure on governments to halt arms sales to the kingdom as thousands of Yemeni civilians were killed in coalition air strikes, including hundreds of children.
Seth G Jones, director of the international security programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that there was growing recognition in Washington of the Houthi threat to Saudi Arabia, and concern that if the US did not support the kingdom, Riyadh would turn to China. More centrists elements of the Democratic party are pushing back against progressives, arguing “we need to defend them [ Saudi Arabia] from adversaries and pre-empt the Chinese moving in”, he said.