President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is travelling to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to press the kingdom to move towards a ceasefire in the conflict in Yemen, US officials have said.
On Monday, Sullivan will become the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit Saudi Arabia. Beyond meeting Prince Mohammed, who is popularly known as MBS, he is expected to meet Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman, The Associated Press news agency reported, citing two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
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The visit represents continued engagement between the Biden administration and MBS following criticism that Washington did not take a strong enough stand against the crown prince after a US intelligence report made public in February directly linked him to the killing of the Washington Post journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.
The Biden administration, which has promised a human rights-leading foreign policy, faced further criticism for welcoming MBS for high-level meetings in Washington, DC in July.
The engagement is part of a wider determination that ending the seven-year conflict in Yemen, which began when Houthi fighters took over Sanaa and overthrew the internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014, could not be achieved without engaging with the most senior Saudi officials face-to-face, a Biden administration told The Associated Press news agency.
Riyadh intervened in Yemen in 2015, leading a coalition against the Iran-linked Houthis that included the United Arab Emirates, as well as support from the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Biden administration has since stopped military support to the Saudi Arabia-led war, which has caused a humanitarian disaster in the poorest country in the region. Still, the administration has remained closely aligned with Riyadh, and said it would continue to provide military assistance for the kingdom’s defence.
Rights groups say both sides have committed abuses in the fighting. The United Nations food agency last week warned that 16 million people in the country are currently “marching towards starvation”.
Sullivan is being dispatched as Houthi fighters continue their offensive on the city of Marib, the Saudi Arabia-backed government’s last stronghold in the country’s oil-rich north.
The newly appointed UN special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, recently declared that the country is “stuck in an indefinite state of war”, and warned that negotiations to end the more than six-year conflict will not be easy.
White House officials are hopeful that the appointment of Grundberg will bring a new dynamic and put pressure on all sides to bring an end to the conflict, the two senior administration officials told the AP.
On Monday, National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne confirmed that Sullivan will travel to Riyadh and would also visit the UAE. He will be accompanied by National Security Council Middle East and North Africa Coordinator Brett McGurk and US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking.
Lenderking had previously travelled to Saudi Arabia and Oman to press for an end to the war.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with his counterpart members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on the margins of the UN General Assembly.