When Saudi King Salman greeted subjects in the northwestern city of Hail on Wednesday evening, he had a conspicuous member in his entourage.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who normally remains in the capital Riyadh running the kingdom’s affairs while his aging father carries out largely symbolic regional tours, was by the king’s side.
It was a critical show of support for the 33-year-old heir, who has faced calls from American lawmakers to step aside over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2.
The crown prince is widely regarded as the only figure who could have ordered a 15-member team to fly from the kingdom to Istanbul and back to carry out a murder inside the Saudi consulate.
But the succession plan appears to be intact.
On the ongoing tour, the king and crown prince will together launch development projects, meet provincial governors, pardon prisoners, and implicitly highlight the king’s continued endorsement of his heir.
Huthi chief in Yemen vows ‘no surrender’
Meanwhile, Yemen’s rebel chief has vowed that he will never surrender to Saudi-backed forces, as international aid groups appealed for safe passage for civilians caught in the flashpoint port of Hodeida, AFP reported.
In a lengthy televised speech from an undisclosed location on Wednesday, rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Huthi appeared to admit the alliance had made headway into Hodeida. He acknowledged that his forces were outnumbered, but appeared undaunted, despite appearing to admit to incursions by the Saudi-led coalition.
“The enemy benefits from its numbers, which it has increased even further to pressure the city of Hodeida,” al-Huthi said.
“Does the enemy think that penetrating this or that area, or seizing this or that area, means we will be convinced that we should surrender and hand over control? This is not happening and will not happen ever.”
After six days of intense battles that have left 200 combatants dead, pro-government forces pressed even closer to the heart of Hodeida, the Red Sea city controlled by Huthi rebels and under blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Plumes of smoke were seen billowing from the horizon on Tuesday as heavily armed pro-government forces moved towards the port on foot and on the back of pickup trucks.
The coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had sent fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters to cover Yemeni troops fighting rebels on the ground, a pro-government military source said.
‘Spare the civilians’
Aid groups have appealed to both the rebels and the alliance to allow civilians to escape the densely populated city of 600,000 people.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called for the warring parties to “spare civilians and civilian infrastructure” including ambulances, hospitals, electricity and water plants.
The first youngster was confirmed killed in the fighting on Wednesday, with Save the Children saying a 15-year-old had died of shrapnel wounds at a hospital in Hodeida.
Millions of people across Yemen are dependent on humanitarian aid to survive the civil war, disease and looming mass starvation – and nearly 80% of that aid comes through Hodeida.
The United States, which is providing vital logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition, called last week for a ceasefire, apparently to no avail.
The Huthis, northern tribesmen linked to Iran, seized large parts of Yemen in 2014, including the capital Sanaa. Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the Yemeni government’s war against the Huthis the following year, driving the rebels back but failing to retake Sanaa and Hodeida.
Nearly 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since 2015, according to the World Health Organisation, and the country now stands on the brink of famine.
– with reporting by Agence France-Presse