WASHINGTON – White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke by phone with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday amid signs that the Saudis and Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen are making “remarkable progress” toward finding a permanent end to their nine-year conflict, according to the Biden administration.
The crown prince, often referred to by his initials MBS, has had a strained relationship with President Joe Biden over human rights and oil production concerns. But the de facto Saudi leader and the president’s top national security adviser decided to talk amid encouraging signs on winding down the long and bloody war, a top priority for Biden.
The call came after Saudi diplomat Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber met with Houthi officials in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Sunday for talks that were aimed at accelerating negotiations on ending the war.
The White House said in statement that Sullivan “welcomed Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary efforts" to pursue a more comprehensive roadmap for ending the war and offered full U.S. support for those efforts. A nongovernmental official familiar with the ongoing negotiations said a deal is close at hand and could be reached within the next seven to 10 days. The official was not authorized to comment and requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive private talks.
The White House remains cautiously optimistic about the way ahead. But the two sides still have work to do and the negotiations remain complex, according to a senior Biden administration official familiar with the negotiations. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, added that a final agreement has not been reached and cautioned that the situation remains complex.
Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, is being dispatched to the Saudi capital Riyadh this week for follow-up talks with Saudi officials, according to the White House. CIA Director William Burns traveled to Saudi Arabia last week to meet with intelligence officials.
Al-Jaber's visit to the Houthi-held Yemeni capital came after the Saudis reached a deal with Iran last month — in China — to restore diplomatic ties that were cut off in 2016. Iran is the Houthis’ main foreign backer in Yemen’s conflict.
It was a flashy moment of diplomacy for China — the United States' top global competitor — that Beijing touted as evidence of its ability to be a diplomatic player in the Middle East. White House officials note significant progress was made during several rounds of earlier talks hosted by Iraq and Oman, well before the deal was announced in China during last month’s ceremonial National People’s Congress.
Since last month's announcement, China has not taken a major role on resolving the Yemen conflict, according to the Biden administration official.
Sullivan and the crown prince largely focused on Yemen but also discussed Saudi Arabia and Iran's reestablishment of diplomatic ties, Iran's nuclear program, and other issues.
Iran-allied Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition armed with U.S. weaponry and intelligence entered the war on the side of Yemen’s exiled government in 2015.
Years of inconclusive fighting created a humanitarian disaster and pushed the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of famine. Overall, the war has killed more than 150,000 people, including over 14,500 civilians, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
A six-month cease-fire, the longest of the Yemen conflict, expired in October. Biden has made finding a permanent peace among his highest priorities in the Middle East.
The call also comes amid fresh concerns that the Riyadh-led OPEC+ alliance plans to cut oil production could stymie efforts to curb global inflation.
OPEC+ announced last week it would c ut oil production by 1.1 million barrels per da y, or roughly 1 percent of global production, beginning next month. The Saudis have said the production cuts were “precautionary,” helping to keep up prices as the world economy appears to be slowing and demand for oil is dropping.
But along with cuts announced in October, world oil supplies are down by 3%. April’s announcement could have a ripple effect on the U.S. economy in the form of higher gasoline prices, possibly forcing the Federal Reserve to be more aggressive in rate hikes to lower inflation.
The official said Sullivan and the crown prince discussed macroeconomic issues but did not dwell on the OPEC move.
As a candidate for the White House, Biden vowed that Saudi rulers would “pay the price” under his watch for their human rights record. But in July, amid rising prices at the pump around the globe, Biden decided to pay a visit to Saudi Arabia. During the visit, he greeted the crown prince, whom he once shunned, with a fist bump.
Relations hit another rocky patch last fall.
In October, the president said there would be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia as OPEC+ alliance moved to cut oil production. At the time, the administration said it was reevaluating its relationship with the kingdom in light of the oil production cut that White House officials said was helping another OPEC+ member, Russia, soften the financial blow caused by U.S. and Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its ongoing war in Ukraine.
The administration's reaction to last week’s production cut was far more subdued, with Biden saying, “It’s not going to be as bad as you think.”
Separately, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., met Tuesday with the crown prince in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Graham said they discussed ongoing reforms in the kingdom as well as trade between the countries. The Saudis announced last month that the two national airlines would order up to 121 jetliners from American aircraft manufacturer Boeing, a deal worth up to $37 billion.
“I look forward to working with the administration and congressional Republicans and Democrats to see if we can take the U.S.-Saudi relationship to the next level, which would be a tremendous economic benefit to both countries and bring much-needed stability to a troubled region,” Graham said.
Associated Press writer Josh Boak and Nomaan Merchant contributed reporting.