Boris Johnson speaks to Saudi crown prince about Yemen

British foreign secretary spoke to Prince Mohammed bin Salman about situation in the war-afflicted state

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives for a meeting at Downing Street on November 20, 2017 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May is chairing a Cabinet sub-committee at Number 10 this afternoon to discuss the possibility of additional money for the Brexit 'divorce bill'. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson has spoken to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defence about bilateral relations between the two countries and about the situation in Yemen.

Mr Johnson tweeted on Thursday night that he had “spoke[n] to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on urgency of humanitarian situation in Yemen. Stressed need for immediate humanitarian access into Hodeidah port & opening Sana’a airport to UN flights. But famine won’t be averted without commercial imports into all of Yemen”.

The move by the British comes after Mr Johnson’s American counterpart, the secretary of state Rex Tillerson, asked Saudi Arabia to ease its blockade of Yemen, according to two sources who spoke to Reuters, just days before the Saudi-led military coalition announced on Wednesday that it would let aid flow through the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and allow United Nations aid flights in to the capital.

It was not immediately clear if the pressure being exerted from Washington was the direct cause of the Saudi change of heart but the request from Mr Tillerson to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was one of several US attempts this month to have Riyadh soften its foreign policy in regards to Yemen.

Mr 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.

R C Hammond, a top State Department adviser to Mr 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 efforts to take the edge off Saudi Arabia’s towards Yemen are ongoing despite high-profile attempts by president Donald Trump to improve relations with the longtime US ally.

Publicly, Mr Trump, his top aides and senior Saudi officials have hailed what they say is a major improvement in US-Saudi ties compared with relations under former president Barack Obama, who upset the Saudis by sealing a nuclear deal with Iran.

The coalition, which is fighting Houthi rebels, said it would allow humanitarian aid access through Hodeidah more than two weeks after blockading the country to stop the flow of arms from Iran.

Yemen, which has been undergoing a vicious civil war, faces a deep humanitarian crisis and aid workers had warned of famine if the blockade were not lifted.

A senior Saudi official told Reuters that even before Mr Tillerson and Prince Mohammed spoke recently, senior White House officials had communicated to the Saudi ambassador in Washington the importance of taking those two steps.

“They stressed the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Yemen and we said that we understood and that the closures were temporary while we work on a comprehensive aid and access plan,” the official said.

A Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that White House and National Security Council officials worked on easing the blockade with senior Saudi officials, including Prince Mohammed and his younger brother Khalid, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.