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UK troops stationed in Saudi Arabia with missiles to defend against Houthi drone and rocket attacks

Britain has troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to provide air defence against possible drone and missile attacks by Houthi rebels, at a time of growing concern about the escalating conflict in the Middle East.

The Independent understands that a unit of around 50 gunners from 12 Regiment Royal Artillery are deployed at a base near Riyadh, as well as well as number of oil installations, in a bilateral defence arrangement with Saudi Arabia, which has led a military alliance against the Houthis in Yemen.

The move has taken place under Operation Crossways, a mission to train Saudi armed forces. The British contingent’s weaponry is said to include the Starstreak High Velocity Missile (HVM) system, mounted on Stormer armoured vehicles. The missiles travel at three times the speed of sound with multiple warheads. A 12 Regiment document on current deployments states: “Operation Crossways (Saudi Arabia) deployed with High Velocity Self Propelled [missiles] to defend our allies from modern attack UAVs [drones].”

The US, UK and a number of other Western states are engaged in prolonged military action against the Iranian-backed Houthis, who have been targeting commercial shipping in the Gulf in retaliation for the Israeli offensive in Gaza which, according to the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian health authority, has claimed 28,000 lives so far.

The Royal Navy frigate, HMS Richmond, took over last week from HMS Diamond in the American-led Operation Prosperity Guardian, which seeks to protect ships in the Red Sea. RAF Typhoon fighters have taken part in raids on Yemen from their base at Akrotiri in Cyprus.

The Houthi leadership has repeatedly threatened to enlarge their actions, and strikes on vessels in the Red Sea have continued, adding hugely to the cost of shipping, with vessels increasingly going around Africa instead of using the Suez Canal. Western security officials have warned that the Houthi leadership appears intent on broadening the conflict.

The initial Royal Artillery deployment in Saudi Arabia took place four years ago. Two Giraffe radars sent at the time were brought back a year later.

The Ministry of Defence in London said in a statement: “The threat to Saudi Arabia has not abated and the requirement to support KSA [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] remains. The Ministry of Defence has conducted a phased follow-on deployment of air defence equipment to Saudi Arabia. The deployment comprises a small number of High Velocity Missile (Self Propelled) systems and associated personnel.”

The Ministry of Defence acknowledged that Operation Crossways “is primarily intended to provide training and tailored military advice to the Saudi armed forces” and wanted to stress that the weaponry sent was for use in a “purely defensive capability, and is being deployed solely to support KSA efforts to defend itself from persistent aerial threats to their territorial integrity.”

The Saudis have been pursuing a peace deal with the Houthis after nine years of costly intervention in Yemen and the Kingdom has not joined the West in the current Red Sea mission against them. Furthermore, the Saudis, the leading Sunni power in the Gulf, are also in the process of attempted rapprochement with Iran, the largest Shia state in the Middle East, which has been a long-term weapons supplier to the Houthis.

Western security officials also point out that Iran does not have as much control over the Houthis as may be publicly perceived. “While he was alive, Qasem Soleimani would largely be able to direct what Iran’s allied militant groups did with one exception – and that exception was the Houthis,” said a senior British official. Commander Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.

The Houthis had declared that their Red Sea campaign was aimed at Israeli-linked vessels. But, in an example of the increasingly haphazard nature of their attacks, the latest cargo ship to be hit was carrying grain to Iran.