Yemen will likely be the focus of Trump’s Saudi visit
London- US President Donald Trump’s plan to make his first official state visit to Saudi Arabia this month likely means the conflict in Yemen will factor heavily in talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as will the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The White House announced that Trump plans to visit Israel and Rome along with Saudi Arabia before attending a NATO session in Brussels and a Group of Seven summit in Sicily.
Trump’s engagement in the Middle East and upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia have come as a relief to many Gulf leaders, who view his administration as more sympathetic to their grievances than the Obama administration was.
“Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam and it is there that we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries,” Trump said.
A Saudi-led Arab coalition, supported by the United States and Britain, began in March 2015 an air campaign against Houthi rebels who had overrun much of Yemen. The conflict is well into its second year. The role of Iran, which has backed the rebels, has become transparently clear for many US and Gulf observers.
It is that perceived threat from Iran and its proxies across the Middle East and the fight against groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that have pushed relations between the United States and many Gulf Arab countries.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis, while on a plane to Saudi Arabia in April, said: “Our main objective [in Yemen]… is to reach negotiations sponsored by the United Nations to find a political solution as soon as possible.”
“We’ll have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilise yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah,” Mattis said, referring to the conflict in Yemen.
A retired Marine general, Mattis commanded US troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is familiar with the geopolitical dynamics of the region and is known for being a brazen critic of Iran, a stance he underscored on the Riyadh visit.
Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Mattis said that Iran’s arming of the Houthis needed to be “brought to an end” and that the United States was looking at broadening the relationship with Saudi Arabia in mind.
In January, a Houthi remote-controlled boat laden with explosives rammed a Saudi frigate, the first known attack by a drone vessel in the Yemeni conflict.
“These weapons didn’t exist… before the war. There was no explosive boat that existed in the Yemeni inventory,” US Navy Vice-Admiral Kevin Donegan told Reuters.
Donegan, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, also said that ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia were more sophisticated than those in the country before the conflict began.
“When you have a non-nation-state with nation-state-like weapons that can reach into the maritime (area), it has my attention,” Donegan said.
A report by the UK-based transparency group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) strongly backs claims by US and Gulf officials that Iran is supplying Houthi rebels in Yemen with drones.
A CAR investigation stated: “The presence of Iranian-designed and manufactured UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in Yemen, not only confirms Iran’s materiel support to Houthi and Salah-aligned forces but also its role in enabling the groups to conduct increasingly sophisticated asymmetric operations.”
Besides the acknowledgement of Iran’s involvement in supporting and arming the Houthis and the need to counter that, the long-standing cooperation between Washington and its Gulf allies against AQAP is also set to be increased.
A senior coalition military commander told Reuters that “UAE-backed forces have captured al-Qaeda operatives and, while a January raid in Yemen was Trump’s first since he took office, UAE-trained local Yemeni forces have carried out more than 250 raids in and around Aden.”
“We are encouraged by US support and the change from a drone policy to greater engagement. We can’t really defeat and dislodge al- Qaeda with a drone policy,” the UAE official said.