WASHINGTON—The Biden administration has transferred a significant number of Patriot antimissile interceptors to Saudi Arabia within the past month, fulfilling Riyadh’s urgent request for a resupply amid sharp tensions in the relationship, senior U.S. officials said.
The transfers sought to ensure that Saudi Arabia is adequately supplied with the defensive munitions it needs to fend off drone and missile attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, one of the officials said.
The Saudi military had been appealing to the U.S. since late last year for more Patriot interceptors-—missiles used to shoot down airborne weapons—warning that their supply was running dangerously low.
U.S.-Saudi relations have deteriorated since Mr. Biden took office over issues such as a White House decision to remove the Houthis from a list of designated terrorist groups, as well as Mr. Biden’s dealings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader.
The longstanding Saudi request for more interceptors had been a point of contention between Washington and Riyadh, feeding Saudi officials’ displeasure over what they contend was a lack of U.S. support for their intervention in the Yemen civil war.
U.S. officials said the decision to send the interceptors had taken months because of the high demand for the weapons by other U.S. allies and the need to go through normal vetting—not because the White House was deliberately delaying the resupply.
The interceptors and other munitions sent to Saudi Arabia were taken from U.S. stockpiles elsewhere in the Middle East, one of the officials said.
The decision to go ahead with the arms transfer was part of an effort by the Biden administration to rebuild its relationship with Riyadh. Among other things, the U.S. hopes Saudi Arabia will pump more oil to mitigate soaring crude prices, officials said. But providing Patriot interceptors hasn’t resolved all the strains in the relationship.
Mr. Biden also publicly criticized Saudi Arabia over its protracted war in Yemen and cut off the flow of some weapons Riyadh could use to target Houthis. The president also reversed a move by his predecessor that put the Houthis on the U.S.’s official list of global terrorist groups, a move that Saudi leaders said had emboldened the Yemeni force and thwarted efforts to broker a cease-fire.
The latest attacks on Saudi Arabia came late Saturday and early Sunday when Houthi forces in Yemen fired missiles and drones at energy and water-desalination facilities run by Aramco, the Saudi state oil company.
The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attacks, which a spokesman said were in response to “the continued aggression and unjust siege of our people.”
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, condemned the Houthi attacks in a statement Sunday.
“The Houthis launch these terrorist attacks with enabling by Iran, which supplies them with missile and UAV components, training, and expertise,” he said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
The missiles and drone attacks were fired at a water-desalination plant in Al-Shaqeeq; a distribution station in Jizan; a liquefied-natural-gas plant in Yanbu; a power station in Dhahran al Janub; and a gas facility in Khamis Mushait. Aramco said there were no casualties or impact on its supplies, while the Saudi-led military coalition backing the Yemeni government said the strikes damaged civilian vehicles and homes in the area.
In 2019, the Houthis claimed credit for coordinated strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. The U.S. later blamed the attacks on Iran. But missile barrages and drone strikes from Yemen have continued steadily since.
Patriot antimissile batteries are only one of the weapons used by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to counter the Houthi attacks. Many of the slow-flying drones are shot down by fighter aircraft.
The rift between Mr. Biden and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince stretches back to the 2020 presidential election, when the Democratic candidate vowed to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” state after the U.S. implicated Saudi Arabia in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in Istanbul.
After taking office, Mr. Biden released a U.S. intelligence report that concluded that Prince Mohammed had approved the plan to capture or kill Mr. Khashoggi, who had been an outspoken critic of the young Saudi ruler.
Prince Mohammed has denied knowing anything about the plot. People close to the crown prince were convicted by a Saudi court of taking part in murdering the journalist.
In an effort to repair the breach, the White House unsuccessfully tried to arrange calls between President Biden and Prince Mohammed in early February, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
The White House has said the story about the unsuccessful telephone calls was inaccurate.
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