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Has Trump finally lost patience with the Saudis?

Has Trump finally lost patience with the Saudis?
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One way of describing the problem-solving principle of Occam’s Razor could be that the obvious may not always be the best explanation, but it is often tempting to think it may be.

On April 30, Reuters reported that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE four weeks earlier had delivered an ultimatum to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman: “Cut oil supply or lose U.S. military support.” Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that four batteries of American Patriot surface-to-air missiles were being withdrawn from the kingdom and the F-15 jets they had been protecting there already had returned home.

So perhaps President Trump played the card of withdrawing some American forces to twist MbS’s arm? Or perhaps what may be explained as simply a redeployment is a convenient reminder of who really is boss in the bilateral relationship?

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The oil price war started at the beginning of March by MbS, Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, led to a huge over-supply of oil, coinciding with the drastic slowing down of the world economy as the global coronavirus lockdown began. Putin’s Russia was MbS’s main adversary, but Trump’s concern was that American shale oil production would be incidental road kill.

Yesterday President Trump may have been trying to end this period of tension when he explained: “We are making a lot of moves in the Middle East and elsewhere. …Militarily we’ve been taken advantage of all over the world. … This has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia.”

The deployment goes back to October, a few weeks after Iranian missiles had rained down on Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia’s main oil processing plant, and another oil facility. The world was stunned by the accuracy of the attack and the damage it caused — so stunned that neither the kingdom nor the U.S. directly blamed Tehran.

The eventual U.S. response was to send headline items of two squadrons of F-15s and four batteries of Patriot missiles, which can be used against both aircraft and missiles. Around 3,000 service personnel were involved at Prince Sultan air base, south of Riyadh. Ironically, this was the main base that the kingdom asked Washington to vacate in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., when Riyadh was trying to quiet anti-American sentiment at home.

Much has happened since last fall, but it is worth recalling that in October, President Trump said Riyadh had agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost of the deployment, a deal that he claimed took him “35 seconds to negotiate.” By January a U.S. official was quoted as saying $500 million had been received.

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Strategically, the spin is that the Iranian threat has been contained, justifying some changes in force structure. And, of course, a more prosaic reason for withdrawing the missiles, which latest reporting suggests is only two of the four batteries at the base, could be that the missiles need maintenance and their operators need a break after several months in the desert.

But this may be tempting fate. Last month Iranian fast boats played chicken with American warships in the region, and in March the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen fired an Iranian-supplied missile at the Saudi capital. (Whether Saudi-operated Patriots shot it down or not is unclear. The pictures of debris in Riyadh streets were identified as from one of the salvos of Patriots missiles that had been fired and caught on cell phone video.)

The guiding principle of Iranian tactics against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states appears to be to keep changing the tactic. The challenge for the U.S. is to provide a credible deterrent against Iran and whatever that new tactic may be.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.