Joe Biden has reaffirmed the United States’ “commitment to support” Saudi Arabia against attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the White House said, as the US president spoke by phone with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Wednesday’s call came as the Houthis have intensified drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and have begun directly targeting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Riyadh’s key ally in the region.
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“The president underscored the US commitment to support Saudi Arabia in the defense of its people and territory from these attacks and full support for UN-led efforts to end the war in Yemen,” the White House said in a statement describing the talks.
A Saudi-led and US-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to push back the Yemeni rebels, who had taken over most of the country, including the capital, Sanaa, and to restore the Gulf-backed government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The war has brought Yemen to the verge of famine, sparking what the United Nations has said is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The coalition accuses the rebels of being proxies of Iran – a charge that both the Houthis and Tehran reject. On Wednesday, the White House described the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia as “Iranian-enabled”.
The Houthis also launched a drone-and-missile attack that killed three people in Abu Dhabi on January 17, as well as several similar attacks that subsequently targeted the Gulf country.
Late last month, the US military said it helped shoot down two Houthi missiles aimed at an airbase outside the Emirati capital that hosts American troops, and last week it announced it would deploy a destroyer and fighter jets to the UAE to show support for Abu Dhabi.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency, SPA, said King Salman during the call with Biden lauded the US president for “standing with the kingdom and meeting its defensive needs”.
“His Majesty cited the kingdom’s support to efforts by the United States to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and stressed the need to work together to counter the destabilizing activities of Iran’s proxies in the region,” SPA said. “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques affirmed that the kingdom is committed to deescalating tensions in the region and promoting dialogue.”
Biden, who promised to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, has faced domestic pressure to push Saudi Arabia on its rights record and help broker an end to the ongoing Yemen conflict.
He had promised to recalibrate Washington’s relationship with Riyadh amid growing anger amongst Democrats over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
In February last year, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Biden would conduct “counterpart to counterpart” engagements with Saudi Arabia – and “the president’s counterpart is King Salman”.
That same month, just weeks into his presidency, Biden announced an end to US assistance for Saudi Arabia’s “offensive operations” in Yemen, as well as “relevant arms sales”, but reaffirmed his commitment to the kingdom’s security.
Since then, Biden’s administration has greenlit a $650m sale of air-to-air missiles to Riyadh, as well as a $500m helicopter maintenance deal, drawing rebuke from some rights activists.
The White House readout of Wednesday’s call between Biden and King Salman did not mention any discussions on human rights between the two leaders.
But it said that Biden and King Salman “further reiterated the United States’ and Saudi Arabia’s commitment to ensuring the stability of global energy supplies”.
Last year, Biden blamed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), to which Saudi Arabia is a major party, for withholding supply and contributing to a surge in gas prices. “It’s about gas production,” he said of the prices during a town hall last October.
The two leaders on Wednesday also discussed the ongoing talks in Vienna to restore the Iran nuclear deal, the White House said, describing the negotiations as an effort to “reestablish constraints” on Iran’s nuclear programme.