MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Global* 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 Gulf to advance ongoing UN-led efforts to expand the truce and launch a comprehensive peace process in Yemen. He will also cover the successful offloading of the Safer supertanker, next steps of the operation, and the latest on U.S. efforts to end the conflict in Yemen and support the Yemeni people.
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.
I will now turn it over to Special Envoy Tim Lenderking. Sir, the floor is yours.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you, Sam. Sabah al-khair. Good morning, everybody. Thank you very much for joining us today. It’s a great pleasure to speak with you all and take your questions following my trip to the Gulf region last week to advance ongoing UN and regional efforts to reach an agreement and launch a comprehensive peace process.
My trip coincided with the offloading of 1.1 million barrels of oil from the Safer tanker, avoiding what would have been a catastrophic environmental, economic, and humanitarian disaster. The United States has been a leading advocate for this project since day one. While the work on the Safer is not yet finished – the decaying ship still needs to be towed and scrapped – the immediate crisis – an oil spill four times that of the Exxon Valdez – has been averted. We commend the UN, Yemeni, and international parties who came together to prevent this crisis.
My trip was part of continued, intensive U.S. diplomatic efforts to support a durable resolution to the Yemen conflict. Yemen remains a foreign policy priority for the United States and the Biden-Harris administration. I conducted meetings with Yemeni, Emirati, Saudi, Omani, and UN officials to press for opportunities to advance progress in ongoing talks to secure a new, more comprehensive ceasefire agreement and to launch a UN-mediated, Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue. I also discussed efforts to mitigate Yemen’s dire humanitarian and economic crises, and next steps for addressing any residual environmental threats from the Safer oil tanker.
I want to reflect briefly on the progress we have seen over the last two years. President Biden and Vice President Harris made a commitment to end the conflict as a foreign policy priority. Since my appointment, we have worked tirelessly to de-escalate the fighting, secure a truce in April of last year, hold the truce, and launch talks. Yemen has witnessed the longest period of de-escalation since the war began. Thousands of lives have been saved. Cross-border attacks and airstrikes have stopped, and freedom of movement has been improved, including with the resumption of commercial flights from Sana’a airport for the first time since 2016. That said, much more is needed. Only a Yemeni-Yemeni political agreement can durably resolve this civil conflict, and only a comprehensive recovery and reconstruction effort with strong support from regional as well as international donors can reverse the humanitarian and economic crises facing Yemenis every single day.
We remain optimistic about the prospects for further progress toward peace, but ultimately, the key decisions rest with the conflict parties. Yemenis must have the difficult conversations with one another. We know that a settlement will only be durable if it incorporates the perspectives and addresses the concerns of a wide range of Yemenis. That is why we and others in the international community are urging the Houthis to seize this unprecedented opportunity to sit down with the Republic of Yemen Government to chart a brighter future for Yemen.
I want to reiterate that Yemen remains a top foreign policy priority for the United States and the Biden-Harris administration, and we are committed to continuing our efforts to advance a resolution of the conflict and alleviate the suffering of Yemenis.
The U.S. goal for Yemen is simple: We support a stable, more prosperous Yemen that is free of undue foreign influence. We will continue to work with the UN, Yemeni parties, regional partners, and the rest of the international community to advance this goal.
Thank you very much. And with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. And I will note that we did receive many, many, many questions in advance from many journalists, including many of our Arabic-speaking colleagues, so we will try to get to as many of those as we can. And I will go ahead and start with one of those pre-submitted questions. So that question, Special Envoy Lenderking, comes from Julia Cassano from Bahrain’s Daily Tribune. And Julia asks, “To what extent are the Gulf nations in the region collaborating with the U.S. to facilitate the resolution of this conflict? And if you could specifically, sir, reflect on your recent trip and those conversations you had with the Gulf nations.”
Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Julia. That’s a very, very relevant and important question. The United States recognizes that in our effort to support a peace effort in Yemen that the regional parties have an essential – the regional countries have an essential role to play. And that’s why when I travel to the Gulf region, as I have more than 30 times since being appointed in this role, all of my trips generally visit the regional actors as well. And so working on building an international consensus, coordinating regional efforts and uniting them around a common way forward is something that I feel the United States prioritizes. So in order to achieve changes and benefits for the Yemeni people, it’s not only being donors that we expect from the Gulf but harnessing their considerable influence to bring it to bear on regional actors to support a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. I’m going to go ahead – because we did get so many presubmitted questions, I’m going to go ahead and do another pre-submitted question, this time from a Yemeni journalist, Wafeeq Saleh from the Yemen Shabab Channel. And Wafeeq asks, “Sir, what lies ahead for the Safer oil tanker? How is the disposition of the crude oil unloaded from the tanker being planned?”
Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Wafeeq. I mentioned the historical accomplishment, I think, because this – which was to offload the oil from the Safer tanker onto a more stable vessel. And this is something that had stymied the international community for the duration of the Yemen conflict. And the fact that everybody was able to work together, including donors from all over the world and drawing on inspiration from environmental groups and the private sector, that we were all able to work together to make this important change.
So what lies ahead, of course, is that there are two ships moored out there in the Red Sea together side by side. We need to separate them and, ultimately, as I mentioned, tow the Safer away and scrap that ship so it’s pulled off of the Red Sea, and then work on ultimately dispensing with the oil on the second, more stable ship.
So there’s going to be more work that needs to be done. And in that vein, the UN, which has essentially led this operation with strong support from the United States, still needs $22 million to finish the operation of towing the Safer and reaching a resolution on the oil – the remaining oil. So there’s more work to be done, and we intend to continue full speed ahead – strong U.S. engagement – to support a successful conclusion of this effort.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. And now we’ll go to the live queue, and we’ll take a question from our colleague Mike Wagenheim from i24NEWS. Mike, just give me a second. Okay. And you should be able to unmute yourself, Mike, and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sam, and thanks to Special Envoy Lenderking for doing this. I know one of the goals of the U.S.-brokered Saudi-Israel normalization is to end the war in Yemen with Saudi assistance. Has your office been looped into those discussions about normalization and how the Saudis can further help end the war in Yemen? And if so, how prominently do you think that topic is going to be in the effort to bring about the Saudi-Israel normalization through Washington?
MR LENDERKING: Mike, thanks very much for the question. I mean, the normalization effort is handled in a different channel. I would say that Yemen is not specifically part of the normalization effort. Our efforts on Yemen started with the beginning of this administration, the renewed emphasis that I mentioned at the top on resolving the conflict. We’re very much focused on the Yemen piece of it, and that’s our goal. And I think the administration is looking for us to prioritize the kind of goals that I’ve outlined without reference to other regional efforts. We really want to keep a strong and straight focus on the Yemen conflict to work the kind of goals that I outlined.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. I’d like to go to another pre-submitted question from another colleague of ours from Yemen. And this question is from Nawaf Muneer Hamood, from Almawqea Post in Yemen. And Nawaf Muneer asks: “Special Envoy Lenderking, what are some of the agreements or tenets that you see being established regarding the truce, and what measures are in place for its expansion, and can we anticipate a sustainable peace?” Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much for the question. I mean, what we’ve seen over the course of the last 18 months, remembering that the truce started in April of 2022 – so last year – were some key pillars, right. First of all, a commitment not to continue cross-border attacks – that commitment has been honored. A commitment to build up the commercial capacity of Sana’a airport – that commitment has been honored as well, with the more than a hundred commercial flights that have gone back and forth between Sana’a and Amman, Jordan at the rate of three and sometimes more per week. We want to see these flights expanded. This is not the end of that particular pillar of the truce; we would like to see more destinations, more commercial flights. We can see the way that Yemenis are embracing the ability to move around, to go and visit relatives in other countries, to get medical care which they cannot get inside Yemen. So we see these commercial flights as a very important part of the confidence-building, but also ways that benefit the Yemenis in tangible fashion.
We’ve also seen a strong reduction, significant reduction in the bureaucratic process for moving oil and other commercial supplies into Yemen through Hudaydah Port. The United States has long emphasized the principle that there should be no impediments to movement of commercial and humanitarian supplies into Yemen. And so we want to see that this principle is ultimately upheld.
And then, of course, finally the issue of salary payments is what – has been a key issue and a key demand by both sides. So we’re urging the parties to reach agreement on how to pay salaries for the thousands of Yemeni civil servants who have not been paid in years. And so that’s an issue that must be resolved, and we’re very much supporting, along with the United Nations, efforts to reach a common position with regard to salary payments.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Let’s move around the region a little bit and we’ll go to a live question from a colleague from Lebanon, Raneem Bou Kzham from LBCI. Raneem, if you give me just a second, I will open your line and you should be able to go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question. Go ahead, Raneem.
QUESTION: Hello, and thank you for this opportunity. My question to you is: How do you assess the impact of the deal between or maybe the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the ground level in Yemen?
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Raneem. First of all, I would say most important is that the recent progress that I discussed in Yemen peace efforts is the result of over a year and a half of active U.S. diplomacy, UN-led diplomatic efforts supported by the United States and regional partners like Saudi Arabia and Oman. And I would just stress again the only way to durably resolve the Yemen conflict and reverse the desire – the dire humanitarian crisis is through a comprehensive Yemeni-Yemeni peace process.
You saw that we welcomed this agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We do feel that any measures that regional countries take to de-escalate tensions in the region will be of benefit to the region, and that is certainly the case with the Yemen conflict. What we need to see is Iran follow through on the commitments that were made to Saudi Arabia, no smuggling of lethal equipment or war equipment into Yemen – to the Houthis – and a commitment to support a political resolution of the conflict. And we’re looking very closely to see whether those commitments from the Iranians have been made.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We have time for a few more questions. I will apologize in advance – we have many, many journalists trying to ask questions, and we had many, many pre-submitted questions. Let’s try to get through a couple more. I’d like to go back to a pre-submitted question from a colleague from Egypt, and this is Aya Sayed from Roayah News in Egypt. And Aya asks: “The Yemeni peace process is intertwined with the economic challenges the nation faces. Could you, Special Envoy, shed some light on how the economic situation in Yemen is influencing your efforts and international efforts towards achieving peace?” Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you so much, Aya. This is a very insightful question because if we look at the underlying drivers of the conflict in Yemen, we can see that there are economic issues at stake – first of all, division of resources, who controls what oil and gas capacity there is in Yemen, who controls trade and access at the ports. And these issues have been intertwined with the conflict and must be resolved, right. The economic issues must also be resolved as we talk about a political process.
So we and the UN, I think, have been particularly focused on the economic challenges that the country faces. The only way and the best way to resolve them is for the Yemeni parties to be able to sit down together. And that’s why when we talk about the two priorities that we see going forward, number one: durable ceasefire. The truce is great, but it’s not enough. We need to see a durable ceasefire and the elements that go in to support that. And secondly, we need to see the Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue, because it’s through that dialogue, which gets Yemenis around a table together, that the issues, the economic drivers of the conflict can be addressed. And so we are very keen to see that second – both of these pillars, but the second one, which would address, we think, the environmental concerns.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. I’d like to do one more question that’s a pre-submitted question from a colleague of ours from the Palestinian territories, and that’s Moaz Shraifeh. And Moaz is from the Almahaba radio center in the Palestinian territories. And Moaz asks: “In your opinion, Special Envoy, is there any specific timeframe that you expect for the return of stability in Yemen?”
Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much. Obviously, stability in Yemen is something that we wanted yesterday. We’re in a situation where, despite the positive elements that I’ve referred to, Yemenis are still suffering. While there are commercial flights and more ability to move around the country, the country is not fully at peace. The war is not – is not fully over. And so the kind of process I’ve described of Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue which leads to a political agreement is something that we really have to see. And so that’s what’s driving our sense of urgency and our sense of commitment to wanting to see positive change.
At the same time, we are also seeing the conflict parties engage in a constructive manner. You saw last April there was a very large release of prisoners, more than 900 prisoners, from all three sides – Saudis, Yemen Government, and Houthi side. But there are still prisoners detained by the different sides. We need to see this file closed and resolved; we need to see the economic issues taken on. We are, at the moment, the largest humanitarian donor to Yemen with more than 665 million in humanitarian assistance so far this year. We want to see other donors step up and support Yemen’s humanitarian challenges.
This is a difficult set of prospects, but what I’m heartened by, including from my last trip, is the willingness of the parties to be engaging. Many of you will have seen that a Houthi and Omani delegation traveled to Sana’a last week – something that we very much support, this kind of talk among the different parties. The involvement, engagement in a constructive way by regional actors is what we need to continue to harness and drive forward to durably end the conflict.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. I believe we have time for maybe just one more question. So let’s go back to the live queue, and we’ll go to our colleague Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra. Michel, I’m going to open your line if you give me just a second. And Michel, you should be able to unmute yourself and ask your question. Michel, you need to unmute yourself.
Okay, it looks like he’s having some technical difficulties there, so let me do this. I’m going to leave his line open and we’ll see if he jumps back in, but why don’t I turn it back over you, Special Envoy Lenderking, for any closing remarks you have.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Sam, and I’m happy to take another question from the region if you like. I will just – I will just reiterate, I think, the sense of promise and possibility that we’re feeling. At the same time, what we see inside Yemen is still a difficult and challenging situation. But the regional engagements I have – that I’ve made lead me to believe that with continued prioritization and coordination, this conflict can be resolved. And we’re very keen, obviously, to see that happen. I’ve mentioned some of the positive steps. We need to continue to build on that and bring Yemenis together, I think, to really tackle the difficult issues that still remain. But we are optimistic and we are doing our utmost – I think laser-focused to see this conflict resolved in the near future.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much, sir. That concludes our call for the day. 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 Global Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a great day.
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