WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is traveling to Saudi Arabia today to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the United States pushes for a ceasefire in the multi-year war between the kingdom and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Sullivan will be the most senior official in the Biden administration to visit Saudi Arabia. In addition to seeing the crown prince, often referred to by his initials, MBS, Sullivan is expected to meet with Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, a brother of the crown prince, according to two senior administration officials. Officials were not permitted to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House Biden has largely avoided the crown prince since it released a CIA report in February that showed MBS likely endorsed the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in an operation in 2018 at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
But the White House has decided that ending perhaps the world’s most complex conflict cannot be achieved without engaging face-to-face with top Saudi officials, a senior administration official said.
National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said Sullivan was traveling to Riyadh today and would also visit the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally in the war, but did not provide further details. Axios first reported that Sullivan was planning to visit the area.
Sullivan is dispatched at a time when the situation in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has deteriorated further. Fighting intensified in the key city of Marib, as Iranian-backed rebels sought to overthrow the Saudi-backed government in the oil-rich city in the north of the country.
International efforts to end the war have been unsuccessful. Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy to Yemen, called on the Houthis in July for continuing “refuse to engage in any meaningful way on a ceasefire and political talks.” Saudi Arabia offered a ceasefire proposal to Yemen’s Houthi rebels earlier this year as it sought to rehabilitate its image with the Biden administration.
The Saudis have drawn international criticism for airstrikes killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger in a country on the brink of famine.
The new UN special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, recently said the country was “Stuck in an indefinite state of war” and resuming negotiations to end more than six years of conflict will not be easy.
The war in Yemen began in September 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis seized Sana’a and began a march south in an attempt to take over the entire country. Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and other countries, went to war alongside the internationally recognized government of Yemen in March 2015.
The United States sold bombs and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia which the kingdom then used in strikes against Yemen that also killed civilians. The Obama administration in 2015 initially offered the United States targeting assistance for Saudi Arabia’s command and control operations, which are supposed to minimize civilian casualties in airstrikes. It didn’t, and Obama ultimately cut the program.
Under President Donald Trump, targeting assistance continued although his administration subsequently halted U.S. refueling operations for Saudi jets.
Biden announced weeks after starting his administration that he was ending all U.S. support for “Offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including sales of relevant arms”. But there has been little progress on the ground in addressing what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
White House officials hope Grundberg’s appointment will bring new momentum and pressure all parties to end the conflict, according to two senior administration officials.
Sullivan is joined in talks with the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates by Lenderking and NSC Senior Director for the Middle East, Brett McGurk. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had planned to visit Saudi Arabia earlier this month while in the region, but was postponed due to what the administration said were scheduling issues.
The high-level White House push comes after Lenderking visited Saudi Arabia and Oman, which called for an end to the war. In addition, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Sullivan’s visit to Saudi Arabia also comes as the administration seeks ways to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates are fiercely opposed to the return of the deal with Iran that was originally negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration only to be abandoned by Trump in 2018.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, Iran’s new Foreign Minister Hossain Amir Abdollah said the country would resume nuclear talks in Vienna “very soon.” But he accused the Biden administration of sending mixed messages saying it wanted to join the pact while imposing new sanctions on Tehran and not taking “one iota of affirmative action.”
Biden and his team have made the return of the United States to the agreement – to which Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran are signatories – one of their top priorities of foreign politic. But the United States has made limited progress in the indirect talks, and Tehran has bristled at the call from Biden administration officials for a “longer and stronger” agreement as the original, which expires at the end of 2030.