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U.S. Careful Amid Turmoil And Transition In Yemen, Saudi Arabia

The White House is facing uncertainty in the wake of political turmoil in Yemen and political transition in Saudi Arabia.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the span of 24 hours, two U.S. partners in counterterrorism experienced dramatic shifts in leadership. One was, at least, expected, the other, a surprise. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was 90 years old, died after an illness. And, in Yemen, the president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, announced his resignation.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports from the White House on what this means for the president and U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The short answer is no one knows, really. For now, the situation in Saudi Arabia appears much more straightforward. Steve Seche is a former U.S. diplomat.

STEVE SECHE: The Saudis and King Abdullah himself, before he passed away, had established a very clear succession pattern.

KEITH: Former Crown Prince - now King - Salman has ascended to the throne. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest says President Obama hopes to talk to him soon.

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WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: The president certainly hopes and we expect that the strong relationship that exists between the United States and Saudi Arabia will endure under the leadership of the new King.

KEITH: The situation just to the south of Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, is significantly more uncertain. Yemen has been a U.S. ally in its fight against AQAP - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen.

JOHN ALTERMAN: It was a government that was trying to help us.

KEITH: That's John Alterman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ALTERMAN: And it's not just counterterrorism in terms of drone strikes. It's about information. It's about passing knowledge about what's going on with who.

KEITH: But the man the U.S. had a solid relationship with, President Hadi, has resigned under increasingly impossible pressure from Houthi militiamen. The Parliament in Yemen has scheduled an emergency meeting to decide whether to let him step down. But if the Houthi do take over the government, Alterman says this could be a real problem for U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

ALTERMAN: It's hard to imagine they're not going to ask for a large change if not a complete halt to those actions.

KEITH: Steve Seche, the career diplomat, was U.S. ambassador to Yemen for three years. He says the Houthi's motto is roughly translated - God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel.

SECHE: Well, it certainly is that, and certainly is a little bit off-putting.

KEITH: Seshe says it isn't clear if President Hadi really will follow through and step down. It's also not clear whether the militiamen who've put him in in this position really want to run the government.

SECHE: Frankly that's not a job of a lot of people would put on their list of things they want to do in life.

KEITH: So, for now, Josh Earnest says the U.S. government still has an ally in Yemen.

EARNEST: I can tell you that some of our counterterrorism partnership efforts continue in Yemen, that there are national security relationships that continue to exist and continue to be useful in protecting the United States. But, you know, we obviously are concerned about the situation in Yemen, about the political instability.

KEITH: And you can add Yemen to a long list that includes Syria, Iraq and Libya, among others, as concerns for President Obama. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

CORNISH: And one additional note on the topic of Yemen. Today defense secretary Chuck Hagel made his first comments since Yemen's president offered his resignation. Hagel spoke with NPR's Morning Edition host, Steve Inskeep. And Steve asked if, from the Pentagon's point of view, the U.S. still has a partner in Yemen.

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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: We still want to participate and cooperate and partner with the Yemeni government.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Is there still someone to cooperate with? Who's answering the phones?

HAGEL: Well, that's my point. This just happened. Phones are being answered at ministries. Because the president leaves and senior members of his cabinet leave, does not mean that all the institutions shut down. They don't and they are not.

CORNISH: Defense secretary Chuck Hagel made those comments in an exit interview as he prepares to leave the Pentagon. And you can hear more this coming Monday on Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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