U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Saudi King Salman and others Sunday to discuss the war in Yemen, a visit to the kingdom that likely will be his last as U.S.’s top diplomat.
Kerry’s trip, ahead of the inauguration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump, comes as diplomatic ties between the two longtime allies have been strained by the Iran nuclear deal championed by Democratic President Barack Obama and other issues.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has grown increasingly worried about civilian casualties caused by Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen to the point of cutting some arms sales to the kingdom last week.
The war in Yemen has also allowed extremist groups to flourish there, as the local affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed a suicide bombing Sunday in the southern port city of Aden that killed at least 48 soldiers lined up to receive their pay.
Any tensions weren’t immediately visible as Kerry held meetings with the king, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and other royalty in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
“In turbulent times, it’s good to have solid friends,” Kerry told journalists Sunday night. “That’s why the United States’ partnership with Saudi Arabia is rightly so valuable.”
Kerry earlier joined diplomats from Britain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates to speak with Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the United Nations special envoy to Yemen.
The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, while Oman has served as an interlocutor for them.
On Twitter, British Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood said the meeting discussed a political process to end Yemen’s war, something he described as “the only way to bring peace.”
Kerry said he hoped to have parties involved “within two weeks” to agree to terms earlier set out by the U.N. But he and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir offered few specifics on how that would be accomplished, especially as the U.N. has proposed sidelining Saudi-backed President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi and giving the rebels a share of power — concessions the kingdom strongly opposes.
“You can see from the humanitarian situation, which is dire and deteriorating rapidly, that it is urgent that we try to bring this war to a close,” he said. “But we also need to bring it to a close in a way that protects the security of Saudi Arabia.”
Yemen’s war began when the Houthis and their allies seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, expelling Hadi’s government. A Saudi-led coalition of mostly Gulf Arab nations launched a campaign in March 2015 against the Iran-backed rebels.
The U.N. and rights groups estimate at least 9,000 people overall have died in the war, with the U.N. estimating at least 4,125 civilians have been killed since the airstrike campaign began. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes were responsible for 60 percent of the civilian deaths over a yearlong span starting in July last year, according to a U.N. report.