WSJ News Exclusive | Saudi Arabia Pleads for Missile-Defense Resupply as Its Arsenal Runs

WASHINGTON—Saudi Arabia is running out of the ammunition it uses to defend against weekly drone and missile attacks on its kingdom and is urgently appealing to the U.S. and its Gulf and European allies for a resupply, U.S. and Saudi officials said.

Over the past several months, Saudi Arabia has been attacked by nearly a dozen ballistic missile and drone strikes launched each week by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels, U.S. and Saudi officials said. The Saudi military has successfully fended off most of the barrages with its Patriot surface-to-air missile system, but its arsenal of interceptors—missiles used to shoot down airborne weapons—has fallen dangerously low, these officials said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has redeployed much of the American weaponry that defended U.S. forces and lent security to Saudi Arabia, part of the Biden administration’s turn away from the Middle East to confront China.

While U.S. officials appeared poised to formally approve the Saudi request, the situation has officials in Riyadh concerned that without a sufficient stock of Patriot interceptors, the sustained attacks could result in significant loss of life or damage to critical oil infrastructure. In January, the Houthis struck buildings belonging to the royal court, but no one was injured.

The Saudi government’s appeal has tested the U.S. commitment to the Middle East and in particular to Riyadh, where the Biden administration has attempted to reshape the relationship over a range of issues including human rights, the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

A house in Riyadh damaged in what the Saudi-led coalition described as a thwarted Houthi missile attack in February.


ahmed yosri/Reuters

In one indication of tension, Defense Secretary

Lloyd Austin’s

planned visit to Riyadh in September was abruptly canceled. He later told reporters that the kingdom had canceled the visit because of scheduling issues. Mr. Austin returned to the region last month but didn’t travel to Saudi Arabia.

The Senate Tuesday night defeated by a vote of 67-30 a resolution disapproving of a proposed sale of 280 air-to-air missiles to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, following President Biden’s objections.

The number of attacks against the kingdom has grown significantly, according to a Saudi government official. Drones struck Saudi territory 29 times last month and 25 times in October; the country was struck by 11 ballistic missile attacks last month and 10 in October. That is up significantly from February 2020, when Saudi Arabia was attacked six times, five by ballistic missiles and once by a drone, according to the official.

Timothy Lenderking,

the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, said at a forum on Friday that the Houthis have conducted about 375 cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia in 2021.

Saudi air defenses intercepted a ballistic missile above Riyadh on Monday. The Defense Ministry said it had produced shrapnel in several residential districts but caused no damage. Online videos showing a boom and flashes of light suggested a Patriot system had been engaged.

Despite their concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record and other issues, U.S. officials believe they have an obligation to help the oil-rich kingdom in its own defense, especially as the U.S. grapples with rising oil prices. A sophisticated attack in 2019 hit state-owned Aramco Oil facilities, forcing the brief suspension of some production. The Houthis attacked a major Saudi oil port in March but caused no damage.


Should the U.S. and Europe resupply Saudi Arabia with Patriot missile interceptors? Why or why not? Join the conversation below.

The Saudis have been mostly successful at defending themselves, U.S. and Saudi officials say, defeating almost nine out of 10 missile or drone attacks, according to U.S. officials.

More missile interceptors won’t address the longer-term budget problem: The interceptors cost about $1 million a piece, but the drones, described by people familiar with them as “$10,000 flying lawn mowers,” are small, simply made and relatively inexpensive, officials and analysts said.

“Attacks by armed drones launched by terrorist militias are a relatively new global security threat and the means for dealing with them are evolving,” the Saudi official said.

Saudi concerns about its security situation and its request to the U.S. government haven’t been previously reported.

The Saudi government is requesting that the U.S. provide it with hundreds more Patriot interceptors manufactured by

Raytheon Technologies Corp.

, and it has also approached Gulf allies, including Qatar, and European countries. A direct sale of the interceptors to Saudi Arabia is under consideration by the State Department, according to two U.S. officials, and the department would also be required to sign off on any transfers from another government like Qatar.

“The United States is fully committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s territorial defense, including against missiles and drones launched by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen,” said a senior administration official in a statement. “We are working closely with the Saudis and other partner countries to ensure there is no gap in coverage.”

The State Department and Raytheon declined to comment.

Aramco officials say they are working 24/7 to repair their damaged oil facilities. Saudi Arabia invited WSJ’s Rory Jones to see the Khurais oil field and Abqaiq processing plant to show Aramco’s efforts to get back to full production and rally international support against Iran ahead of a meeting next week at the United Nations. Image: AP

In November, the State Department approved and Congress was notified of a sale for a system known as the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles system, for about $650 million. The Saudi government had requested to purchase 280 missiles and 596 missile-rail launchers to defend the kingdom against such attacks.

The Saudi-led conflict with the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen has been grinding on for seven years. The Houthis, who control much of Yemen, including its capital, are battling a Saudi-backed, internationally recognized Yemeni government and have so far rebuffed peace overtures from Riyadh and Washington.

The U.S. has pressed the Saudis to end the war in Yemen, but Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who supports the push, says the resupply of the Patriot interceptors must be viewed separately from concerns over Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen and other issues that put it at odds with Washington.

“How do we deal with that threat while also trying to make the autocrats in that part of the world move in a more progressive direction?” Mr. Smith said. “It’s not an easy formula.”

Even fully stocked with interceptors, Riyadh remains vulnerable, because the Patriot missile system is designed to counter ballistic missiles, not small drones. The Patriot batteries can’t swivel 360 degrees, for instance, limiting their effectiveness against the drones, which are sometimes launched from inside the kingdom, U.S. officials said. In at least one case, a drone…

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