US reaffirms ‘strategic partnership’ with Saudi Arabia

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned the Houthi attacks in a telephone conversation Thursday with his Saudi counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the official Saudi Press Agency and a Pentagon statement said.

Friday 19/02/2021
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to Defence Department personnel during a visit by US President Joe Biden at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, February 10, 2021. (AFP)
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to Defence Department personnel during a visit by US President Joe Biden at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, February 10, 2021. (AFP)

RIYADH – Washington has reaffirmed its “strategic defence partnership” with Riyadh in the face of increased attacks by Iran-aligned Yemeni militias but the move came in a call from the Pentagon not the White House.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned the Houthi attacks in a telephone conversation Thursday with his Saudi counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the official Saudi Press Agency and a Pentagon statement said.

Crown Prince Mohammed also reviewed bilateral relations with Austin, especially in defence cooperation, state news agency SPA added.

Austin said in a statement he had a productive call.

“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,” he said.

The conversation came after 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 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.

Austin spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed “to reaffirm the strategic defence partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Pentagon statement said.

“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.”

Austin thanked MBS for Saudi efforts towards a political solution in Yemen and said the two countries had a shared commitment to confronting the threat posed by the Iranian leadership in the region, the SPA report of the meeting said.

The Houthi militias 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 toehold in northern Yemen.

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.

Washington has also dropped the Houthi militias 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 swathes of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken already spoke earlier this month with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan.

Yemen has been embroiled in a bloody power struggle since 2014 between its Saudi-backed government and Houthi militias, who control the capital Sana’a and most of the north.

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.