Pompeo on diplomatic tightrope in Saudi talks over Khashoggi murder

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Royal Court in Riyadh on January 14, 2019. — AFP pic
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Royal Court in Riyadh on January 14, 2019. — AFP pic

RIYADH, Jan 14 — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faces a tough balancing act today as he presses Saudi Arabia’s crown prince over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder while shoring up strategic ties with Riyadh.

The top US diplomat, on an extensive Middle East tour, held talks with King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who faces international opprobrium over the journalist’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Pompeo walks a diplomatic tightrope on his second politically sensitive visit to Saudi Arabia since the killing, amid pressure from American lawmakers for a tough response.

After landing in Riyadh yesterday evening, Pompeo pushed for Saudi Arabia to continue its investigation into the murder, in talks with Adel al-Jubeir, minister of state for foreign affairs, and the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman.

“We will continue to have a conversation with the crown prince and the Saudis about ensuring the accountability is full and complete with respect to the unacceptable murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo told reporters ahead of his arrival.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered on October 2 in what Saudi Arabia called a “rogue” operation, tipping the kingdom into one of its worst diplomatic crises and subsequently straining ties between Riyadh and Washington.

Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia is part of an extensive eight-day trip to Amman, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat, and finally Kuwait City.

Smiles with MBS

US President Donald Trump has brushed aside international outrage to stand by Prince Mohammed over the murder of Khashoggi, whose corpse was dismembered at the consulate.

His support has come despite the US Central Intelligence Agency’s reported conclusion that Prince Mohammed very likely ordered the murder. A bipartisan resolution approved by the US Senate last month also held the crown prince responsible for the killing.

Riyadh prosecutors have announced indictments against 11 people and are seeking the death penalty against five of them. But they have exonerated Prince Mohammed, whose right-hand aides were allegedly involved in the murder.

Khashoggi’s murder has cast a renewed spotlight on the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, gripped by what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but it was not clear whether the subject would be discussed during today’s meeting.

On a previous visit to Riyadh at the height of the Khashoggi affair, Pompeo’s broad smiles with the crown prince outraged some Americans.

However, Trump has said Washington wants to preserve the alliance with the oil-rich kingdom, which he sees as a bulwark against common foe Iran and a lucrative buyer of US arms.

Rights groups have called on Pompeo to also press Prince Mohammed over the jailing of women activists in the kingdom, amid claims that some of them faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation.

“I am struck by what is not included in Pompeo’s itinerary: the brave women activists of Saudi Arabia, who are being held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity,” Alia al-Hathloul wrote in The New York Times yesterday.

Hathloul’s sister, Loujain, is among more than a dozen activists arrested last May — just before the historic lifting of Saudi Arabia’s decades-long ban on women drivers.

Gulf crisis

Pompeo met Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani yesterday during his visit to Doha, where he refused to comment on reports Washington had recently considered military action against Tehran.

He also called on Qatar and other Gulf Arab countries to end their worst political rift for years, which has seen Doha diplomatically and economically isolated by neighbouring former allies for the past 19 months.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — all US allies — cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups and seeking closer ties to Saudi arch-rival Iran.

Qatar — also a US ally — denies the allegations and accuses the countries of seeking regime change.

“As for the GCC... we are all more powerful when we’re working together when we have common challenges in the region and around the world,” Pompeo said, referring to the six member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

“Disputes between countries that have a shared objective are never helpful.”

He added that “President Trump and I both believe the ongoing dispute in the region has gone on too long”.

Mediation efforts by the United States, which at first appeared to back the boycott of Qatar, have stalled, as highlighted by the recent resignation of US envoy Anthony Zinni.

For Washington, turning the page on the crisis is essential for the successful launch of the Strategic Alliance of the Middle East (MESA), a Nato-style security pact that includes Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan. — AFP