The Biden administration has transferred a significant number of Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia in the past several weeks after the country urgently requested a resupply, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The transfers, which were not formally announced but notified to Congress, are to make sure Saudi Arabia can defend itself against drone and missile attacks from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, a senior U.S. official told the outlet.
While they would not specifically confirm a “significant” number of transfers, a State Department spokesman told The Hill that over the past several months the administration has “been working with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to help them strengthen their air defenses in response to a rising number of aerial attacks from Yemen.”
One official told the Journal the Patriot interceptors were moved from U.S. stockpiles elsewhere in the Middle East, though the spokesman told The Hill on Tuesday that no interceptors were transferred from U.S. stocks. Rather, because the Saudis use a slightly different variant that what the U.S. currently keeps, officials have helped Riyadh restock interceptors “through regular arms sales channels,” and have reached out to other Gulf states “who have the same type of interceptors and have made it be known that if they are willing and can come to agreements with Saudi.”
The official said the U.S. will approve those third-party transfers in the near term while the Saudis wait for Raytheon to build and deliver new ones purchased.
Washington’s relationship with Riyadh has been rocky for more than a year after President Biden took office, an issue that stems from the country’s human rights record and its involvement in Yemen’s civil war, which has dragged on since 2014 and killed thousands of civilians.
Biden will not communicate directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and last year released an intelligence report implicating him in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
And the United States in September withdrew some of its own Patriot defense systems from Saudi Arabia amid ongoing Houthi attacks.
But Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, is also a valuable strategic ally in the region, especially since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
The U.S. has supplied more than $100 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom in the past decade and has used the country to keep a U.S. force presence in the region amid ongoing tensions with Iran and counterterrorism missions against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
On Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemned the Houthis for a series of major drone and missile strikes on water treatment facilities and Saudi-run Aramco oil infrastructure that started a fire at one site and temporarily reduced oil production at another.
“We will continue to fully support our partners in the defense of their territory from Houthi attacks. We call on the international community to do the same,” Sullivan said in a statement.
A person familiar with the transfers told The Hill that the recent movements of Patriots to the Saudis was not a new development and that the U.S. has been working for months to bolster Saudi Arabia against cross-border attacks, which numbered at more than 400 last year, they said.
Such attacks “affected Saudi infrastructure, schools, mosques, and workplaces, and endangered the civilian population, including 70,000 U.S. citizens living in Saudi Arabia,” they said.
“With U.S. support, Saudi Arabia has been able to intercept 90 percent of the attacks, but we need to aim for 100 percent,” the person added.
U.S. officials told the Journal that the decision to send the interceptors had taken so long because other U.S. allies also have a high demand for the weapons and the need to go through the typical government vetting process, not due to a delay from the White House.
The decision to green-light the arms transfer is also part of an administration effort to mend its relationship with Saudi Arabia and convince the kingdom to pump more oil to offset quickly rising crude oil prices, according to the officials.
Asked later on Monday about the Patriot deployments, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby would not confirm the transfers but said the U.S. military is committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend itself against threats to its territory from Yemen.
“We’re in constant discussions with the Saudis about this, about this threat environment, and always looking for ways to continue to help them defend themselves, but I’ve got nothing to say with respect to that press report,” Kirby said