WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Saudi Arabia to ease its blockade of Yemen, two sources said, just days before the Saudi-led military coalition announced on Wednesday it would let aid flow through the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and allow U.N. flights to the capital.
It was not clear if pressure from Washington was the direct cause of the Saudi change of heart but the request from Tillerson to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was one of several U.S. attempts this month to have Riyadh soften its hawkish foreign policy.
Tillerson asked for a loosening of the blockade on Yemen during a roughly 45-minute phone call at the beginning of this week, according to a source familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
R.C. Hammond, a top adviser to Tillerson, confirmed the exchange with Prince Mohammed. The secretary of state “has brought the request to (the) Saudis’ attention several times over the past months,” he added.
The Trump administration, according to U.S. officials and a European diplomat, also pressed the Saudis to allow Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to return to Beirut after he flew to Riyadh on Nov.4 and abruptly announced his resignation.
The efforts to take the edge off Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy reflect growing U.S. concern about Riyadh’s direction despite high-profile attempts by President Donald Trump to improve relations with the longtime U.S. ally.
Publicly, Trump, his top aides and senior Saudi officials have hailed what they say is a major improvement in U.S.-Saudi ties compared with relations under former President Barack Obama, who upset the Saudis by sealing a nuclear deal with their arch-foe Iran.
Privately, however, U.S. diplomats and intelligence analysts express growing dismay over Riyadh’s foreign policy, especially toward Yemen and Lebanon, as Saudi Arabia aims to contain Iranian influence.