Saudi Arabia has reached out to Jerusalem about the possibility of procuring Israeli-made missile defense systems, at a time when the American systems the Kingdom has for so long relied upon have been removed, Breaking Defense has learned.
Sources here have confirmed an AP report from the weekend that American THAAD and Patriot batteries have been quietly removed from Prince Sultan Air Base, located outside of Riyadh.
Those assets had been moved into the Kingdom following a 2019 strike on Saudi oil production facilities; while claimed by Houthi forces in Yemen, US officials assessed that Iran was actually behind the attack.
Although a withdrawal of air defense assets from the region had been expected for several months, it was unclear exactly when US assets would head elsewhere.
Now, Israeli sources say, Saudi Arabia is seriously considering its alternatives. Among them: China, Russia and, in a move that might have seemed impossible a few years ago, Israel.
Specifically, the Saudis are considering either the Iron Dome, produced by Rafael, which is better against short range rockets, or the Barak ER, produced by IAI, which is designed to intercept cruise missiles.
Israeli defense sources told Breaking Defense that such a deal would be realistic, as long as both nations received approval of Washington; one source added that Saudi “interest in the Israeli systems has reached a very practical phase.”
Those same sources say that the Saudis have had low-level talks with Israel for several years about such systems, but that the talks began to take on more energy once it became clear America would remove its air defense assets from the Kingdom.
Ret. Brig. Gen. Giora Elland, former director of Israel’s National Security Council and a former head of the Planning Department of the Israel Defense Forces, told Breaking Defense that he expects “that Washington will not object the sale of these Israeli systems to friendly Gulf countries.”
While Saudi Arabia was not part of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain, government sources say that even without formal relations the two have exchanged security information for some years.
If the Saudis were to buy the Israeli systems, it could open the option up more fully to the nations covered in the Abraham Accords. In a November interview with Defense News, Moshe Patel, the head of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization, said of that possibility: “Since we have the same enemies, maybe we are going to have some mutual interests. I think that there is a potential to enlarge our defense partnership in the future with countries like the UAE and Bahrain. I think that this could happen, of course in the future. There will be more military partnerships. But again, nothing that could happen tomorrow. It’s something that needs to be processed step by step.”
In response to an inquiry, a State Department spokesman said only that “Saudi Arabia and Israel are both important U.S. security partners. We refer you to the respective countries for comment on their defense procurement plans.”
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan already has regional partners on edge, and the movement of further forces from the region will likely do little to calm nerves.
“The withdrawal of the Patriot air defense systems from Saudi Arabia is something that cannot be explained. It’s not only another desertion of a friendly country, but a spit in the face,” an Israeli senior defense source told Breaking Defense.
In a comment to the AP, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged “the redeployment of certain air defense assets,” but emphasized the “broad and deep” commitment to its Middle East.
Underlining the issue: Houthi forces have increased their strikes against Saudi targets in recent weeks, both in Yemen and inside the Kingdom’s borders, with the mix of UAVs and missiles that would potentially be covered by the Iron Dome/Barak duo.
On Aug. 29, the Houthis attacked the Al-Anad air base north of Aden, where Saudi-led coalition forces are stationed. The attack killed more than 30 people and injured more than 60. That was followed by a UAV and missile attack on several Saudi targets, including the eastern city of Dammam not far from Bahrain. The target was a facility of the Aramco Residential Camp.
Then on Sept. 11, an attack was launched on the newly renovated and inaugurated port of Al-Makha, located on the Red Sea coast, with five drones and a ballistic missile. The attack damaged the port’s strategic infrastructure as well as warehouses of international aid agencies. No organization has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The UAE is using the port to transport weapons to Yemen, and in the days before the attack vehicles were transferred to the forces fighting the Houthis in the Hadhramaut area of Khartoum. It is possible that the attack on the port is intended to signal to the UAE that its continued involvement in the fighting in Yemen, despite the reduction of forces, has a price.
In March 2021, the Houthis introduced a wide variety of weapons, including drones, missiles and rockets of various types, mortars, sniper rifles, naval mines, and hollow cargo and a shaped charge for mounting unmanned explosive devices, according to Lt. Col. (Ret.) Michael Segal, a regional military expert. Those capabilities, Segal writes means Iran has turned Yemen into an effective and deterrent military force against Saudi Arabia.