Joe Biden considers redesignating Houthis as terror group after UAE request

US president says the decision is 'under consideration' as his special envoy for Yemen prepares to visit Gulf

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US President Joe Biden on Wednesday said that he is considering redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation following the attack on an Abu Dhabi oil facility and airport this week that killed three civilians.

“It's under consideration, yes,” Mr Biden said at a press conference to mark his first year in office.

“Ending the war in Yemen takes the two parties that are involved in it and it's going to be very difficult.”

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, said on Wednesday that he had asked Mr Biden's administration and Congress to re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

“We are asking our friends in the administration and in Congress to reinstate the Houthi terrorist designation,” Mr Al Otaiba said at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, spoke with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday.

The pair discussed ways to boost military and security co-operation between the UAE and the US and the need for a “decisive international stance” in countering Houthi attacks, the news agency Wam reported.

Congressman Greg Meeks, who chairs the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile told Jewish Insider that he would examine the Houthi terror designation.

“I’m going to be looking at that very carefully and talking" to the Biden administration, Mr Meeks told the publication.

“I’m very concerned and condemn to the highest degree the Houthis and the utilisation of the drones and the strike on the UAE. So, [that is] something that we’re looking at."

The decision ultimately rests with the White House.

“While we don’t discuss actual or potential deliberations regarding our designations process, the Biden administration has sanctioned — and will continue to sanction — leaders of Houthi forces in Yemen who are involved in military offensives that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, pose a dire threat to civilians and contribute to the broader instability in Yemen or elsewhere in the region,” a State Department representative told The National.

The representative said the US remains committed to continuing to aid in the defence of its Gulf partners “through security co-operation, arms transfers and defence trade, exercises, training and exchanges alongside engagement on human rights and civilian harm mitigation".

“We will continue to discuss a range of security needs with our partners.”

The UAE embassy in Washington said on Twitter that “urgent steps” to tighten air defences and enhance maritime security were under discussion.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has also hinted at the prospect of arms sales for the UAE.

“We have a very robust defence partnership with the UAE, which does include foreign military sales of various different types of weapons and platforms,” Mr Kirby said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

The Biden administration rescinded the blanket terrorist designation on the Houthis because it legally barred the US from delivering humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled areas.

The issue of a terrorist designation could crop up on the agenda as President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, prepares on Wednesday to depart for visits to London and the Gulf.

But the State Department noted his visit will largely entail another push for a ceasefire in Yemen while pushing “all parties to the conflict take steps to improve humanitarian access and address Yemen’s fuel crisis".

The terrorist designation had been on the books for less than a month last year, as former president Donald Trump waited until just days before leaving office to add the rebel group to the list of terrorist organisations.

Despite rescinding Mr Trump’s last-minute designation, the Biden administration has maintained and expanded sanctions on individual Houthi leaders.

Those leaders include Abd Al Karim Al Ghamari and Yusuf Al Madani, who were sanctioned in May, and senior Houthi military officer Saleh Mesfer Al Shaer, who was sanctioned in November.

“We will not relent in targeting individuals and entities who are perpetuating the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or are seeking to profit from the suffering of the Yemeni people,” the State Department representative told The National.

“The cross-border attacks launched by the Houthis have affected civilian infrastructure, schools, mosques and workplaces and endanger the civilian population, including tens of thousands of US citizens living in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Following the Houthi attack on the UAE, Republicans in Congress called on the Biden administration to increase pressure on the Houthis, with individual members calling for a range of proposals including redesignating the rebels as a terrorist group, enacting further sanctions on Iran and additional arms sales to the Gulf.

The Treasury Department also sanctioned Iran-based Houthi financier Said Al Jamal in June.

This story was updated on January 20 to add comments from Congressman Greg Meeks.

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Updated: January 20, 2022, 2:28 PM