Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Riyadh on Monday to discuss the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, threats posed by Iran, the dispute with Qatar, and the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
According to NBC News, Pompeo met with the Saudi royals separately, spending 35 minutes with the king and 45 with the crown prince, who is the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia on most policy issues.
Pompeo told the crown prince that his Middle East journey, which has taken him to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, had been “good” so far.
“I want to talk to you about a couple of places we’ve been. We think we learned a lot along the way that will be important going forward,” he said.
The prince replied that the Saudis would “try to add more positivity, as much as we can.”
“We certainly talked about our effort to counter Iranian malign influence, but we spoke about all the issues in the region, ranging from the continued efforts of Hezbollah; we talked about the fact that the – the work that was done in Sweden on Yemen was good, but we need both sides to honor those commitments. To date, the Iranian-backed Houthis have chosen not to do that,” Pompeo said at a press conference in Riyadh on Monday.
Pompeo said he discussed Iranian support for extremism with the king and MBS, positioning an independent Iraq as an important check against Iran’s regional ambitions:
So this all – step back and this all starts with extremism in whatever form you find it. In this case you have Iranian-backed Houthis, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and in each case the root of the challenge stems from the revolutionary nature of the Islamic regime and their efforts abroad. And so they’re focused on doing the things they can do.
I talked to – I shared with the crown prince and with the king, if I recall correctly, my conversations to help Iraq as well. We want an Iraq that is independent, sovereign, and how it is we might do that – there are lots of economic things we can do to assist Iraq in getting back on its feet, which will permit them to be more independent and have more control and be more sovereign. I shared with the crown prince my conversations when I traveled to Iraq.
Pompeo said his current trip to the Middle East has included similar conversations with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates about doing everything possible to help Iraq “build out” its sovereignty and “get on its feet” after the war against the Islamic State. He confirmed part of this strategy will involve beefing up Iraqi government forces to reduce the reliance of certain areas on Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militia, a strategy that he also encouraged for Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
“It’s a five-capital strategy, right? This has been the – this is the history of Iran’s efforts: five capitals,” Pompeo said. “And our effort is to make sure that the Iranian people get control of their capital and that it becomes a nation that is normal and isn’t conducting terror campaigns that are unrivaled anyplace else in the world.”
The secretary said he made U.S. “expectations” on human rights clear to the Saudis, including women’s rights and accountability for those involved in the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He said the Saudi government’s assurances that justice will be done in the Khashoggi killing remain constant, asking the press to give the Kingdom time to work through its “fact-finding process.”
At one point in his remarks to the press, Pompeo implied there has been some pushback from the Saudis against U.S. demands for better answers about Khashoggi’s murder. Asked about criticism in Washington for the crown prince and lingering questions about his possible role in the killing, Pompeo replied:
I spoke with the ruler in Saudi Arabia, the king, and the crown prince, and the foreign minister, and we spoke about a wide range of issues. And where we’re working closely together and being successful we want to redouble our efforts, and where friends think the other one is falling short I was very clear and candid about those things where America is not satisfied, where they’re not meeting our expectations. And they – and they appreciate that.
By the way, you should know they shared places they think America may not be doing everything. I mean, this is – this is how friends engage. You have conversations where you’re not always exactly in the same place, and each tries to ensure that the other understands their position and why it is they’re there, and then you do your best to move forward together.
Pressed on whether MBS should be “chastened” over the Khashoggi killing, the Saudi intervention in Yemen, and the abduction of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in late 2017, Pompeo cited the “deep long-standing relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to explain that the Trump administration understands the Saudis will “act in their country’s interest” but has “shared with them places we think that the kingdom isn’t doing what it is we wish that they would do.”
Obliquely referring to the ongoing isolation of Qatar by other Gulf Cooperation Council nations and Egypt, Pompeo said all parties involved are “figuring out how they can put [the GCC] back together.”
“We can certainly provide assistance and support, but at the end of the day, those countries have to get back together. My conversation with them was to share places where it diminishes our capacity to all work together, and I, for that reason, have a keen interest and America has a keen interest in putting those countries back in a better place together,” he said.
Pompeo concluded by addressing the administration’s efforts to secure the freedom of Americans held by Middle Eastern countries, prominently mentioning Iran and former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared there 11 years ago. He included a reference to Egypt’s refusal to pay the medical expenses of American tourist April Corley, who was severely injured in 2015 when Egyptian forces mistakenly bombed her tour group. Military aid to Egypt has been delayed over Egypt’s actions in the Corley case:
Yes on the April Corley case, and with respect to conversations about prisoners, there are few things that occupy more of my mind than getting Americans back from everyplace, and the Iranian regime has been particularly brutal with respect to the unlawful detention of Americans. I mean, Bob Levinson goes back now years.
I don’t want to say more than to say that we are very focused. We have the whole team, certainly at the State Department but across the entire United States Government, that night and day tirelessly is working to return Americans wherever they’re wrongfully detained. And that certainly includes folks that are held inside the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.
The State Department announced on Monday that Pompeo would cut his Middle East trip short and cancel a planned visit to Kuwait because he must return to the United States to attend a family funeral. Sources told Reuters the death occurred in the family of Secretary Pompeo’s wife, who has been traveling with him.