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Pompeo on diplomatic tightrope in Saudi talks over Khashoggi murder

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced a tough balancing act Monday as he pressed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder while seeking to shore 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 walked a diplomatic tightrope on his second politically sensitive visit to Saudi Arabia since the grisly killing, amid pressure from American lawmakers for a tough response.

The king and crown prince “both acknowledge that this accountability needs to take place”, Pompeo said in Riyadh following talks with the two men.

“They reiterated their commitment,” he added.

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 was pushing for Saudi Arabia to “ascertain facts, assess information, and hold those responsible accountable” for the murder, the State Department said Sunday.

US President Donald Trump has brushed aside international outrage — and calls for an independent probe — 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.

Yemen truce

Khashoggi’s murder has cast a renewed spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s US-backed military campaign against Huthi rebels in Yemen, gripped by what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Backing the Saudi position, Pompeo accused the rebels of failing to comply with a truce agreement for the lifeline port city of Hodeida reached last month at UN-sponsored talks in Sweden.

“The work that was done in Sweden on Yemen was good, but both sides (need) to honour those commitments,” Pompeo said.

“Today, the Iranian-backed Huthis have chosen not to do that.”

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 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 Sunday.

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.

Pompeo on Monday said that he discussed human rights issues with the Saudis, including the plight of women activists, without giving any details.

Gulf crisis

Pompeo was in Riyadh as part of an extensive week-long trip to the Middle East, which included stops in Amman, Baghdad, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

He was earlier scheduled to end his tour with a stopover in Kuwait. But he will be cutting short his tour and returning home early to attend a family funeral after he visits Muscat later Monday, the State Department said.

Pompeo met Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on Sunday 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 in 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.

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.

© Agence France-Presse

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Francesco Fontemagg
Francesco Fontemaggi
Francesco Fontemaggi is a diplomatic correspondent for Agence France Presse in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in MSN, Business Insider, Channel 7, Seven News, Yahoo, Le Figaro, and France 24

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