Exclusive: Tim Lenderking to be US envoy for Yemen

Long-time diplomat was previously deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf Affairs

The National hosted a high level panel discussion event in New York on Monday focused on developments in the region.
“The idea is to have a group of people who care about the Middle East gather on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly,” said Mina Al Oraibi, editor-in-chief of The National.
Leading policy makers and opinion formers swapped views on the escalation in tensions in recent months as well as the prospect of descalation and bolstering the area’s security. The UNGA general debate opens on Tuesday. Ryan Christopher Jones for The National
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Senior US diplomat and former deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs Tim Lenderking will be appointed as envoy to Yemen, sources told The National.

Mr Lenderking's appointment could be unveiled as soon as Thursday when President Joe Biden speaks at the State Department to lay out his vision on foreign policy for the next four years.

A soft-spoken and seasoned diplomat with extensive experience in the broader Middle East since 1993, Mr Lenderking will be the first US envoy for Yemen since the country descended into war in 2014.

He has worked directly on efforts to resolve the conflict over the past four years as deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf Affairs. He met Yemeni officials including President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi in 2019 to try to move the diplomatic needle in the conflict.

Mr Lenderking knows the regional actors and stakeholders in the conflict having served as deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and before that on assignments in Iraq and Kuwait.

Former US official at the Pentagon Andrew Exum praised the appointment, calling Mr Lenderking “a real mensch, and someone who knows the region as well as anyone in the US government”.

The appointment of an envoy itself reflects heightened interest from the Biden administration in resolving the Yemen conflict.

US Secretary of State Tony Blinken stressed in his appointment hearing that ending the war in Yemen is a priority for the Biden administration and has initiated a review on the terrorist designation of the Houthi rebels by the Trump administration.

In his first briefing last month, Mr Blinken said the Biden administration is reviewing the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

He blamed the Houthis and the Saudi-led intervention for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

"It's vitally important even in the midst of this crisis that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen, who are in desperate need," he said.

Nadwa Dawsari, a Yemeni scholar and non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, saw the appointment of an American envoy to the conflict as one that will facilitate direct US engagement.

"This is significant as it gives the US administration more direct involvement in the UN-led talks," Ms Dawsari told The National.
She urged a reassessment of the UN approach to the "deeply flawed" peace talks, which she said are overly focused on incremental changes to the military landscape while ignoring the political stalemate.

“Ending the Saudi intervention won't end the Yemen war and neither a political arrangement between the Houthis and Hadi government,” Ms Dawsari said.

“Mr Lenderking needs to talk to Yemenis from across the political spectrum and ensure that the Yemen talks are inclusive of the various local actors, not just [the] Hadi government and the Houthis.”

The expert said the focus should be on mitigating the humanitarian effects of the war, such as opening airports, roads, payment of salaries, and addressing issues such as the FSO Safer tanker. The oil tanker has been moored off Yemen's west coast for more than 30 years and is degrading at a rapid pace, risking huge environmental damage.

Mr Lenderking is a staunch advocate of a political settlement in Yemen. “There is no military solution to this conflict,” the incoming US envoy said in 2017.

"The more bombs that are dropping, the more Houthi aggression, the more attacks against Riyadh and other population centres in Riyadh, which we cannot countenance, the more conflict is going to drag on," he said.
He supported including the Houthis in a political settlement but repeatedly voiced concern over their support from Iran.

“One very concerning element to all this and very consistent throughout the last couple of years of the conflict has been Iran’s support for the Houthis,” Mr Lenderking said.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Mr Biden, who will speak at the State Department on Thursday, "will announce an end to US offensive operations" and he confirmed that the president will appoint a special envoy. Operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will, however, continue, Mr Sullivan said.