US reaffirms Saudi ‘defence partnership’ amid Houthi attacks

Pentagon chief condemns Houthi attacks and expresses commitment to security ties in call with Saudi crown prince.

Friday's phone call came days after the White House said it would deal with the king, and not the crown prince [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

The United States has reaffirmed its “strategic defence partnership” with Riyadh in the face of renewed attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia during a call between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

MBS, who is also Saudi defence minister, reviewed bilateral relations with Austin, especially in defence cooperation, Saudi state news agency SPA said.

A Pentagon statement said the US and Saudi counterparts spoke “to reaffirm the strategic defence partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

“The secretary condemned the recent Houthi cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and expressed his commitment to assisting Saudi Arabia in the defence of its borders,” added the statement.

Houthi rebels have stepped up cross-border drone and missile attacks in recent weeks as they resumed an offensive to seize the Saudi-backed government’s last major stronghold in northern Yemen’s Marib province.

“We discussed the continued commitment to the 70-year US-Saudi security partnership, and I’m looking forward to working together to achieve regional security and stability,” said Austin in a statement.

Friday’s phone call came days after the White House said it would deal with the king, not the crown prince.

US-Saudi relations

US President Joe Biden said this week he plans to recalibrate US relations with Saudi Arabia and will conduct diplomacy through Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud rather than his powerful son, the crown prince, widely referred to as MBS.

Biden is returning to “counterpart to counterpart” engagement, the White House said.

Although Biden has reached out to US allies in every corner of the world, he has yet to speak with Saudi leaders.

Two weeks after he was sworn in as president, Biden announced an end to US backing for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen’s longstanding war, which he said had created a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”.

“Secretary Austin reiterated recent changes in US policy toward the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, discussed the importance of ending the war,” the Pentagon statement said.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to fight the Iran-linked Houthi rebels, who took over large swaths of the impoverished country in late 2014.

Washington has also dropped the Houthi rebels from the US blacklist of “terrorist” organisations.

Their blacklisting in the dying days of the Trump administration was sharply criticised by relief organisations, who said it would seriously hinder aid shipments to the large areas of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken already spoke earlier this month with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, and raised the issue of human rights in the kingdom.

The grinding conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more, triggering what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Source: News Agencies