The war in Yemen is fueling a lobbying and public relations battle in Washington as opposing sides press their arguments with a Joe Biden administration that is moving quickly to assert a different kind of US leadership in the six-year-old conflict that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Yemeni government and its Gulf Arab allies want to make sure that Biden’s new diplomatic push doesn’t empower the Iran-backed Houthi rebels with whom they went to war in 2014. Meanwhile US and international advocacy groups are pressing the new administration to push Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into negotiations with the Houthis and out of the country.
Well aware that the new president is less supportive of their position than his predecessor, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have kept their powder dry as Biden ends US military support for Saudi-led coalition in the war, which he called a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” Instead Riyadh has deployed its massive US lobby to welcome Biden’s appointment Thursday of veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to the country.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the United States’ commitment to cooperating with the Kingdom in defending its sovereignty and to confronting threats targeting it, as expressed in President Joe Biden’s speech today,” the kingdom said in a statement distributed by Hogan Lovells following the US president’s first foreign policy speech.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan met with Lenderking on Wednesday. The pair talked about ways to diplomatically solve the crisis in Yemen, according to the Saudi foreign ministry.
Meanwhile the UAE has welcomed the US military pull-back with a shrug.
“The UAE ended its military involvement in Yemen in October of last year,” Emirati Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted on Feb. 4. “Eager to see the war over.”
Likewise the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, which is backed by the UAE, issued a tweet applauding Lenderking’s appointment and saying it “supports the US peaceful effort” in Yemen. The group opened up a New York office last year to lobby the United Nations.
But the bromides hide profound disagreements.
Dismayed by the State Department’s decision to reverse the Donald Trump administration’s 11th-hour designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group, Yemen’s minister of foreign affairs and expatriates Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak penned an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that questions the US commitment to fighting the rebels. The op-ed was shared by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, which is represented by lobbying firm MSLGroup Americas.
“We seek a role in governance for all Yemenis,” Mubarak wrote. “But getting there will require sustained US pressure on the Houthis and their enablers. We worry about that commitment given the administration’s decision to revoke its designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. It is difficult to see how that will encourage them to choose talks over terrorism, or Iran to stop transferring advanced weaponry or training Houthi militias.”
“Unfortunately, much of Congress’s attention — notably among Democrats — has focused not on the Houthis but on the Arab countries striving to restore Yemen’s legitimate government in line with multiple UN resolutions,” Mubarak added.
One of those Democrats, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), is scheduled to speak Thursday at an online webinar on a “new US approach” to the war in Yemen hosted by the dovish Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in our foreign policy — one that prioritizes human rights and diplomatic solutions,” Khanna said in a press release after Biden announced the end of US support for the Saudi-led coalition. “President Biden’s appointment of Tim Lenderking as the Special Envoy for Yemen is likewise a critical step along the road to peace. A resolution to the war requires active US diplomatic engagement from UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, putting pressure on all parties to the negotiating table to solve this crisis.”
Annelle Sheline, a research fellow in the Quincy Institute’s Middle East program who is slated to speak at the webinar, said the Saudis and Emiratis have their own goals in Yemen and urged the Biden administration to show them the door.
“What Biden should do is push Saudi Arabia and the UAE to actually get out of Yemen, stop funding and stop pouring resources in, and to actually pull out and repair,” she told Foreign Lobby Report.
That strategy also dovetails with liberal groups’ desire to re-engage with Iran following President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. Sheline said the US needs to mend relations with Tehran, the Houthis’ sponsor, in order to move closer to peace in Yemen.
Another guest on Thursday’s panel, Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation founder and president Aisha Jumaan, took issue with the Yemeni foreign minister’s Wall Street Journal op-ed praising the Saudi-UAE coalition for “striving to restore Yemen’s legitimate government.” The foundation received non-profit status in 2019 and says it “aims to increase awareness of the US public and policymakers vis-a-vis the humanitarian crises underway in Yemen, and support relief and reconstruction, while facilitating peace campaigns.”
The US “supported Saudi/UAE war on Yemen for six years with devastating impact on the Yemeni population,” Jumaan tweeted Wednesday. “Time to listen to millions in Yemen and start alleviating their suffering, support children go to school, bring medicine to the sick and allow them to rebuild.”