Top Biden aide, Saudi crown prince discuss Yemen conflict

In this file photo, the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press briefing on March 12, 2021, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP)

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan had a detailed discussion with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels in Yemen, a senior US official said Tuesday.

The pair agreed to intensify diplomatic engagement, the US official said, as the White House pushes for a cease-fire in the conflict. Fighting in the region has intensified in recent weeks, as rebels have sought to expel Saudis from Marib, an oil-rich city in Yemen’s north.

Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, participated in the meeting and is expected to remain in the region for follow-up consultations

The Saudis — who have drawn criticism over civilian deaths stemming from its airstrikes during the conflict — offered a cease-fire deal earlier in the summer, but the US has said the Houthis so far have refused to engage on the effort. Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, participated in the meeting and is expected to remain in the region for follow-up consultations.

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Sullivan also stressed the importance of human rights in US relationships with longtime allies, the US official said. Relations between the two nations have been strained over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. A Central Intelligence Agency report released by the Biden administration earlier this year concluded that the crown prince probably ordered the operation to kill Khashoggi. Saudi officials deny that.

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A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on April 27, 2021, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an interview with the Middle East Broadcasting Center in the capital Riyadh to mark the fifth anniversary of his vision 2030. (AFP / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE)

Biden’s national security adviser became the highest level US official to visit the kingdom since the president took office. The White House said earlier this year that the administration planned to recalibrate relations with the country after the crown prince enjoyed close access to senior Trump administration officials, including the former president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. 

Biden plans to conduct diplomacy directly with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz while leaving discussions with the powerful crown prince to other members of his administration, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in February.

During the meeting, Sullivan thanked the Saudis for helping evacuate Afghans during the US withdrawal last month and for their efforts to support peace in Iraq, the US official said.

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