The key Saudi official in charge of the catastrophic ongoing war in Yemen wants it to stop, he told two influential foreign policy figures in Washington this spring.
Mohammed bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family who effectively rules the country, made the comments to Martin Indyk and Stephen Hadley. Indyk was a high-level diplomat during both the Clinton and Obama administrations and Hadley a top adviser to former President George W. Bush.
Indyk relayed the conversation to Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, and the man most responsible for aiding bin Salman’s rise in Washington.
“I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is saudi public positions,” Otaiba wrote to Indyk on the morning of April 20.
Indyk replied quickly. “I agree on that too. He was quite clear with Steve Hadley and me that he wants out of Yemen and that he’s ok with the US engaging Iran as long as it’s coordinated in advance and the objectives are clear,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of saudi,” Otaiba confided.
The messages between Indyk and Otaiba, first reported Monday by the Middle East Eye, were obtained independently by The Intercept. The exchange was discovered in a cache of correspondence pilfered by hackers from Otaiba’s Hotmail account, which he used regularly for official business.
Bin Salman’s comments are a ray of hope that with proper diplomacy, a peaceful end to the conflict in Yemen could be reached, though it runs up against an eternal foreign policy conundrum: how to enable a better-resourced, more powerful aggressor to withdraw from a conflict without explicitly admitting defeat.
The war in Yemen has cost thousands of lives, many of them civilians, as the result of a bombing campaign carried out by Saudi Arabia, with U.S. assistance. The UAE is also participating in the war, allied with Saudi Arabia. The war has sparked mass hunger and a cholera outbreak of historic proportions.
Since at least 2015, Otaiba began promoting bin Salman around Washington, talking him up to high-level officials and brokering key meetings, according to sources who witnessed the campaign firsthand. It was an unusual role for an ambassador to play for an official from a different country, but the emails give new insight into the high priority Otaiba and his boss, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, placed on bin Salman’s rise.
Bin Zayed had long feuded with Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi prince who had been in line to become king. Bin Salman deposed Bin Nayef last year.
The day after Indyk and Otaiba emailed about Yemen, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reached out to Otaiba to share his latest piece on bin Salman. Otaiba, in an email obtained by The Intercept, wrote back,
Thank you for taking the time to go out there and meet with MBS. As someone who knows the region well, it looks from how you wrote this piece, that you are beginning to see what we’ve been saying for the last two years. Change!
Change in attitude, change in style, change in approach.
I think we would all agree these changes in saudi are much needed. So i’m relieved to find you saw what we’ve been seeing and frequently trying to convey. Your voice and your credibility will be a huge factor in getting reasonable folks to understand and believe in whats happening.
Our job now, is to [do] everything possible to ensure MBS succeeds.
Indyk didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, and Hadley declined to comment, citing the private nature of the conversation.