MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the United States Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants joining us from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with U.S. State Department Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking. During this call, Special Envoy Lenderking will discuss his recent trip to the region and provide an update on the latest diplomatic efforts to bring a durable peace to Yemen.
After opening remarks, Special Envoy Lenderking will take questions from participating journalists. We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly. We are only able to take live questions in English during the call, but we have received questions submitted in Arabic in advance.
I’ll now turn it over to Special Envoy Lenderking. Sir, the floor is yours.
MR LENDERKING: Good morning, good afternoon, everybody. Thank you very much for joining us. Thank you, Hala and Dubai Hub colleagues, for hosting this call today, and to all of you for joining. We very much appreciate your interest in Yemen and the work that we and others are doing to try and support a peace process there.
As Hala mentioned, I just returned from the Gulf last week. I met with Yemeni, Omani, and Saudi senior officials. Negotiations to secure a more comprehensive, inclusive agreement under the auspices of the UN are ongoing. We continue to believe that this is the best opportunity for peace in Yemen since the war began.
I want to emphasize, as I emphasized to our partners in the region, that we, the United States, have been unwavering in our support for peace efforts and will continue to play a central role. From day one, the Biden administration made ending the Yemen war a top foreign policy priority. Working hand in hand with the UN, we drove efforts to secure an institutionalized truce, building international consensus, and galvanizing regional peace efforts.
The truce and ensuring period of de-escalation have laid the foundation for the progress we now see, including the visit of Saudi and Omani delegations to Sana’a last month and the release of almost 900 detainees from all sides of the conflict. We now have an opportunity to build on this progress to achieve a more durable and lasting peace.
At this critical moment, the United States remains as committed as ever, working to realize a comprehensive Yemeni-led peace process. The recent talks in Sana’a are a critical development, but they are just one step. The parties must now seize on this momentum, intensify their efforts to bridge the remaining gaps between them to reach a more comprehensive agreement.
This agreement must pave the way for an inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni political process under U.S. auspices. The United States is actively engaged to mobilize support for a transition to such an inclusive Yemeni-led process, as I pressed for during my meetings in the region last week. This is the only way to achieve a lasting peace and reverse the humanitarian crisis so that Yemenis can shape a brighter future for their country.
In conjunction with the diplomatic file, I would emphasize that the United States continues to press forward on its efforts to provide tangible humanitarian relief to the people of Yemen. We remain the largest humanitarian donor, having contributed over $5.4 billion since the conflict began. At the donor pledging event in Geneva in February, Secretary Blinken announced the single-largest pledge of $444 million. The truce, combined with U.S. assistance, helped prevent tens of thousands of Yemenis from entering famine-level conditions in 2022, and millions from slipping into emergency levels of food insecurity.
The United States, with the UN and other core donors, has also led an international campaign to mobilize support to offload the oil from the decaying Safer tanker. I’m pleased to report that the very large crude carrier the UN purchased to conduct this operation is now in port in Djibouti and preparing to start the operation to transfer the oil in coming weeks. This progress puts us on the path to averting a catastrophic oil spill that would have had devastating humanitarian, economic, and environmental consequences for the entire region had we not acted.
The road to ending the Yemen conflict and resolving the humanitarian crisis is a long and complicated one, but collectively with the UN and our partners, we have made great strides over the last year. The United States remains committed to the intensive diplomatic engagement necessary to continue achieving these important goals.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. With that said, our first question goes to Wafeeq Saleh, who’s a freelance journalist from Yemen. And Wafeeq asks, “Is peace in Yemen imminent, and do you expect that these intensified efforts for a sustainable peace in Yemen will ensure the preservation of Yemeni institutions and a unified Yemeni Republic?” Sir?
MR LENDERKING: Wafeeq, thank you very much for the question. I don’t expect a durable resolution – and we should not – to the nearly eight-year conflict in Yemen to happen overnight. A political process will take time and likely face numerous setbacks, but I continue to be optimistic that we have a real opportunity ahead of us for peace. And it’s not just we who feel that; I get that from regional partners as well. It’s not to minimize the difficult work ahead, but I think there’s a sense that this is a real moment and the opportunity must be seized.
The future state of Yemen must ultimately be decided by Yemenis. It’s not for us, not for the Saudis, not for the UAE to make these decisions. It’s not for the international community. These decisions must be made by Yemenis themselves. In our view, this includes questions like the southern issue; representation in institutions; resource allocation. And the UN and the international community will stand behind a political resolution that is established in a transparent, inclusive, Yemeni-led forum.
So thank you, Wafeeq.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy. And from the live queue, the first question will go to Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya. Nadia, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good morning, Tim. Do you believe that Yemen has reached a stage now where the political process cannot be derailed? In other words, is there any major obstacles that now can basically reverse the achievement that we have reached so far and for the parties to move from the ceasefire that’s been holding to the next political process, as you said, which is a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue? Thank you.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you, Nadia. I mean, I think you point to the fact that there has been tremendous progress, that we are now in 2023 with more than a year with no cross-border attacks between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and that is a huge change since where we were pre-truce in April of last year. If you look at the commercial flights in and out of Sana’a airport, that airport being open for the first time since 2016 – more than 100,000 Yemenis have been able to take part in the commercial flights to Amman for medical care, for family reunification. There’s more fuel coming on the market from the ports in the west. Yemenis are able to move around with greater ease than they have been during this entire period, which means that humanitarian goods can also flow. So I think that’s incredibly positive.
And then you have major conflict parties like the Saudis and the Houthis who are engaged in dialogue, and from that come benefits: prisoners get released – there are still prisoners being held by the various sides. We want to see all of these prisoners released. But this kind of progress becomes possible when you have a climate of de-escalation and the ability of the parties to work constructively together.
That said, I don’t think we’re near the finish line yet. I think there is great challenges ahead. I think there is still a considerable amount of distrust among the parties, and there’s considerable division within Yemen’s society itself. And so these elements, I think, have to be addressed, have to come together to achieve the kind of durable solution that you’re asking about and that we are determined to see happen.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to another pre-submitted question from Bahia Mardini from Alaraby. The question is on the humanitarian front, asking: “What steps can be taken to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?”
MR LENDERKING: Well, thank you very much, Bahia. We’re very concerned and very committed to improving the humanitarian situation in Yemen. That is one of the directives that the President gave me when he appointed me as envoy, is to work on a political process and to improve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Qatar has been very generous over the years with its support for the humanitarian crisis; very, very pleased and very grateful for that. We are, as the United States, one of the largest donors – as I mentioned, our recent pledge of 444 million, more than 5.4 million since the conflict began. Nevertheless, Yemenis are still suffering. There isn’t enough purchasing power. There isn’t enough access yet for humanitarian workers. There are obstacles in their way, and there’s a huge shortfall with what the need is in Yemen versus what the donors have given. And you can imagine – many of you cover other stories around the world: the Ukraine crisis, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan – these also take up and are much needed needs around the world that attract donors.
But we nevertheless must keep Yemen on the radar screen here. It is still considered the world’s worst humanitarian situation, and we really urge donors to give generously this year to fund lifesaving aid for Yemenis as part of the UN humanitarian response package. There’s no question that the truce has facilitated humanitarian operations, but more needs to be done, I think, to support these efforts and to ensure that humanitarian workers can get to the vulnerable populations.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go back to the live queue at this point and take a question from Bander Alwarthan from Alyaum newspaper. Bander, please go ahead and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes, Your Excellency, everyone, thanks for doing this. My question is regarding the shared vision when it comes to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and allies in order to bring peace and stability to the region. And also, from your perspective, sir, what do you think is the main challenge that is facing that and all the efforts should be focusing in order to reaching a space of success when it comes to the shared goal? Thank you.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Bander, for your question. I have found and I believe we have helped foster really an international consensus, not just a regional consensus, but we’ve been able, I think, to – through our active diplomacy to pull Europeans and the Gulf countries into a very shared – very strongly held shared vision of what peace in Yemen looks like. And that is that the regional countries must be supportive of a political process, as I described. Regional countries should share the burden of funding and supporting Yemen’s humanitarian needs, and everybody should unite around a UN process, I think, that pushes forward from the current state, which is positive but, as I mentioned before, it’s not the finish line, but pushes forward to a durable ceasefire and to a Yemeni-Yemeni-led process.
I remain concerned. Despite the fact that we welcomed an agreement between the Saudis and the Iranians, I remain concerned about Iran’s role, which is to say that over the period of the war, they have armed and trained and equipped the Houthis to fight and attack Saudi Arabia. We’re very, very positive that these attacks have not taken place for over a year, but the Iranians have continued to smuggle weaponry and narcotics toward the conflict, and we are very concerned that this would continue despite the benefits that could come from a Saudi-Iran deal. So that is a space, I think, we have to watch.
And secondly, again, I point to we need Yemenis themselves to believe in the process and come together and unite, as they did during the national dialogue before this war began, to unite in common purpose to drive the important decisions about the future of Yemen.
But nevertheless, all this said, I am confident that the region is moving in the right direction.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. And there were indeed a lot of questions in the pre-submitted queue on Iran, so I will take one from Samira Fremiche from Annahar newspaper. And she asks, “How do you assess the situation in Yemen following the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement?”
MR LENDERKING: Once again, I think, to be clear, we did welcome this agreement, and anything that de-escalates regional tensions is something that the United States supports. And if, as the Saudis and the Iranians go forward, their mutual expectations are met vis-à-vis security and a political process in Yemen, then we will see that this agreement is actually benefiting Yemen’s peace.
But we should also be clear that there was a lot of work done over the last couple of years that did not involve the Saudi and Iranian agreement before it was signed that brought us to this current, more positive space. It’s also important, I think, to stress that the Saudi-Iran agreement alone will not bring peace to Yemen. Houthis do not just take Iranian direction on peace efforts. And the Yemen conflict is about more than Saudi Arabia and Iran. There are internal tensions and divisions within the society that have helped fuel this conflict that don’t really have anything to do with Saudi Arabia and Iran. And so I think it can be helpful to this effort, and indeed many people are sharing with us that in their conversations with Iran that Iran is supporting – supportive of a political process in Yemen. We want to see that borne out in fact, and we do not want to see a continuation of the smuggling and violation of UN Security Council resolutions, which characterized the previous seven years of Iran’s engagement on Yemen.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. And changing gears a bit to the Safer tanker, Haiat Husein from Alshorouk newspaper asks, “What actions is the United States planning to take concerning the Safer oil tanker in the Red Sea?”
MR LENDERKING: Well, thank you very much. I mean, this is an important issue, though it’s not directly related to the truce or the peace process. There’s no question that the more positive environment that we’re seeing in Yemen enables other issues and challenges like the Safer to be tackled in a more effective manner.
I reported to you all that the ship that is going to receive the oil has reached Djibouti and we expect the transfer operation to start in the coming weeks. It’ll be a difficult and technical operations, but we’re confident in the parties, the capabilities of the parties to carry this off.
There is a funding gap here as well, which is to say that the UN, which oversees this operation, is still short of around $40 million to bring this operation all the way through to conclusion. We are a major donor. We put in $10 million last year to support this effort. We have hosted, participated in, and energized pledging efforts. We have approached our own private sector; we have approached international companies; we have approached the environmental organizations, particularly for oceans preservation. We will continue to do that. We’re very active on this file. We want to see that this is done safely, smoothly, and in the most cost-effective manner possible.
So this is also a United States priority and will continue to be so until that oil is safely disposed of and off the high seas.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that update. I will now go back to the live queue for Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra. Michel, please feel free to ask your question.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thank you for the call. I need to ask about Iran too. Has anything changed in Iran behaviors in Yemen after the Saudi-Iran deal? And what effects this deal will have, or has, on the region so far? Is the U.S. planning to reopen its embassy in Sana’a, and what about the U.S. embassy local employees in Yemen?
MR LENDERKING: Yeah, thank you very much, Michel. Taking the different parts of that, we don’t have any plans to open our embassy in Sana’a at this moment. Yes, we do want to go back there. We want to re-establish our diplomatic mission. But certainly some of the behavior that the Houthis have demonstrated toward our local staff is very discouraging, the fact that they have detained 11 of our local staff over the course of the last year and a half and have only recently just allowed phone calls even for these families.
These are Yemeni citizens. These are not even American citizens. We care about them. They worked for us. They’ve been very loyal employees. They are not spies. They have done nothing wrong. They should be released immediately and unconditionally to their families. They should not be held in this manner, incommunicado from their families. We’ve been very firm about that with the Houthis and indeed with international partners who have also raised this issue.
Something like this discourages not just the United States, but any country from reopening its embassy in Sana’a. But I will say that as the positive process that is underway unfolds that there could be a moment in the future, and we certainly hope for it, where the United States can return and reopen our embassy, and we would encourage others to do so. But we need to be confident that the war is over and that we are really launched on a very firm and irreversible Yemeni political process.
And in that vein, Michel, to get to your question about Iran – and I think time will tell whether the Iranians will hold to the terms of what they’ve agreed to, whether we will see an end to the smuggling of weapons, weapons parts, and narcotics to the Yemen theater. I know that’s a concern for Saudi Arabia. It’s a concern for the United States, and indeed it should be a concern for any members of the international community who hold true to the viability of UN Security Council resolutions which prohibit such activity.
My hope, our hope, Michel, is that Iran will change behavior and indeed, in the spirit of the agreement with the Saudis, support the peace effort vigorously in Yemen. That would be welcome.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Now we have a question from Mustafa Shawgi from Lusail newspaper, who asks, “Could you offer an update on the recent dialogue between Saudi and Omani representatives and Houthi leaders in Sana’a and the potential implications these negotiations might bear on the wider peace endeavors in Yemen?”
MR LENDERKING: Well, thank you very much. Again, I think, as I noted, it’s very positive that delegations have traveled to Sana’a this year on more than one occasion to meet together. And again, I’m speaking about the Saudis and the Houthis in particular, but certainly having the Omanis present and supporting this effort is very constructive. And so my talks this past week in the region very much focused on this effort and how we can push this forward and into the UN-led process that I outlined.
So I think some of the issues that have held up the truce – the truce being extended last October, as you know, was not extended – but we are still in a truce-like situation. Some of those issues, I think, are being tackled and they are being addressed directly. I think that’s a very positive thing. These are not easy issues, right? And again, I think they’re not going to be solved overnight. But we’re optimistic that all the parties are approaching negotiations in a serious manner, I think evidenced by the lack of major military escalation and the prisoner releases and other confidence-building measures.
So issues such as the move to a Yemeni-Yemeni peace process, division of the countries resources – those must be dealt with by Yemenis in the course of this peace effort that we are vigorously supporting.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We have time for just one last question before we wrap it up, and it’ll go to Jonathan Landay from Reuters. Jonathan, please feel free to ask your question. Jonathan, you’re still muted. You can go ahead and unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Yeah, there you go. Can you hear me?
QUESTION: Great. Hi, Tim. Thanks very much for doing this. I was wondering if you could talk about the specific hurdles that the Saudi-Houthi talks have been stuck on and whether or not there’s been any movement to overcome them. That would be the payment of state employees, including Houthi fighters, and I believe also a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign troops. How much progress has been made on those two issues?
MR LENDERKING: Yeah, many thanks, Jonathan. I think that there has been progress made. Those are – those are difficult issues. If they were easy, I think they would have been resolved at the time of the truce. But they are difficult because they get into issues, fundamentally, that deal with how Yemen is to be governed and how Yemen divides up its resources. And as we strongly maintain, while the Saudi-Houthi channels can be very helpful in this regard, the questions of resource division must be answered by Yemenis themselves and be part of the comprehensive dialogue that I have noted is a U.S. priority.
That said, I do think these two sides – particularly the Saudis – the Houthis, with support from Oman, are approaching these negotiations or discussions, I would say, not necessarily negotiations, in a very constructive manner. And I do think that it’s possible that they can make further progress. In fact, that is very much our hope, is to see further progress between them in the near future, taking advantage of the de-escalation and this positive climate to drive this effort forward so that the war can definitively be declared to be over.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy. And now, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you, or we can also wrap up the call in case you have – you are all set.
MR LENDERKING: No, thank you all very much. Once again, we appreciate your strong interest. You’ve asked the right questions, I think. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all of them. But first and foremost, know that – know and appreciate that this is a positive moment, that the United States is going to stay firmly on this file and vigorously engaged in the region. We’re talking to key parties and we will continue to do so working both on the political process and on the urgent humanitarian situation. And thank you again for your interest in Yemen.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Special Envoy. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking for joining us, and thank all of our colleagues from the media for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you so much and have a wonderful rest of your day.
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