MONTREUX, Switzerland — The U.S. ambassador to Yemen will work out of the Saudi port city of Jeddah, more than 700 miles from the southern city of Aden where the Yemeni president recognized by the United States is located.
The United States will not move its embassy to Aden, as some Persian Gulf countries have done, to avoid any suggestion that Washington accepts a de facto division of Yemen, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
Last month, the State Department evacuated its staff and closed its embassy in Sanaa after Shiite rebels took over the capital.
Ambassador Matthew Tueller will operate out of an existing U.S. consulate in Jeddah, the official said in a conference call with reporters ahead of a visit to Saudi Arabia by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
“We hope [Tueller will] be able to travel into Yemen, into Aden, on a regular basis to continue our engagement with the Yemenis there, but we won’t have a permanent diplomatic presence there,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under protocol rules.
Tueller traveled Monday to Aden to visit President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, calling him the “legitimate” leader of the country. Hadi fled and resurfaced in Aden last month after the Shiite Houthi militia that had seized control of the capital put him under house arrest.
It was not the first time a U.S. diplomat has been forced to relocate. Amid ongoing turmoil in Libya in July, the United States suspended diplomatic operations in Tripoli and evacuated U.S. personnel to nearby Tunisia.
Saudi Arabia and several other gulf countries have announced that they will move their embassies to Aden. That has allowed Iran, which is keeping its mission open in Sanaa, to strengthen its ties with Yemen, which is emerging as a proxy in a regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The United States will not follow suit. “We don’t have any plans to open our embassy in Aden,” the State Department official said, stating concerns about security and sending mixed messages.
“We don’t want to send any mixed signals in terms of where we believe the situation in Yemen is going,” the official said. “We want to be clear in saying U.S. policy supports a unified Yemen, the preservation of Yemen’s territorial integrity. We don’t want to do anything to signify to other observers we are thinking about the division of Yemen, the establishment of South Yemen. Jeddah is close, and it’s easy for the ambassador to move back and forth.”
Ideally, the State Department would like to set up an arrangement where another country still operating out of Sanaa functions as a “protecting power,” to represent U.S. interests there. But the countries that are candidates for that role are small and aren’t capable of taking on that responsibility, the official said. Russia, China and Oman have also kept their missions open in Sanaa.
The Houthis, who started out as a small insurgency in northern Yemen, overran Sanaa in September and declared in January that they had taken over the country. Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah resigned in protest over what they considered a coup, and the Houthis named a presidential council. Hadi eventually retracted his resignation, and Bahah remains under house arrest.
Kerry is in Switzerland holding talks with his Iranian counterpart over Iran’s nuclear program and plans to fly to Saudi Arabia late Wednesday to meet with King Salman and foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council.