Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia on Monday for meetings with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Pompeo is currently traveling through the Middle East and Asia to shore up the coalition against Iran after its attack on a U.S. drone last week.
Pompeo on Sunday described Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as “two great allies in the challenge that Iran presents” and said his goal was to “build out a global coalition, a coalition not only throughout the Gulf states but in Asia and in Europe that understands this challenge and that is prepared to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.”
Arab and U.S. media made much of the statement from a senior State Department official that Pompeo did not discuss the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last October during his meetings with the Saudi king. The official did not state whether Pompeo raised the issue during his separate lunch meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known by his initials MBS.
“It’s the latest sign that the Trump administration has dropped the issue and tried to move past the brutal killing for the sake of what it says is a critical economic and security partnership,” ABC News opined.
King Salman reportedly hailed Pompeo as a “dear friend” during their brief meeting, while Pompeo described their talks as “productive,” particularly with regard to “the need to promote maritime security” in the Strait of Hormuz against Iranian belligerence.
Voice of America News (VOA) nevertheless detected signs of Saudi irritation in MBS’s decision to make Pompeo “wait for a short while” before meeting him for lunch at a restaurant.
“When the Saudis make you wait and take you out for dinner at a restaurant, it means that they are lukewarm. Usually, they invite you to their palace for a sumptuous meal. Eating out at a restaurant is culturally unacceptable in Saudi Arabia, where they are supposed to prepare a lavish banquet for you at home,” Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut told VOA.
The common theory of Saudi displeasure is that Riyadh wanted the United States to hit back at Iran with military force after the drone shootdown and would generally prefer a more confrontational approach than President Donald Trump’s policy of steadily increasing sanctions while offering Iran a seat at the bargaining table.
The Saudis also want broader and firmer condemnation of Iran’s support for the Houthi insurgents of Yemen from the U.S. and its allies, a concern Pompeo reportedly addressed by talking with the Saudis about a U.S. program to keep a closer eye on Iranian activities in Yemen and counter Houthi and Iranian attacks on Saudi civilian targets.
Khashan thought Pompeo found a warmer welcome in the United Arab Emirates.
“The Emiratis are good business people and they understand in real politics they don’t win everything. They know that the U.S. will not hit Iran, but they can cope with it,” he said.
Pompeo also met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE on Monday to discuss Iranian tensions, freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, and the urgency of establishing stable civilian governments in Libya and Sudan.
“They agreed on the importance of working together to support regional stability and counter the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activity,” the State Department said.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia released a joint statement with the United States and the United Kingdom on Monday to “express their concern over escalating tensions in the region and the dangers posed by Iranian destabilizing activity to peace and security” in both Yemen and the Persian Gulf.
The bombing of oil tankers in the Gulf region, Houthi attacks with Iranian weapons on Saudi civilian targets, and Houthi interference with the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen were highlighted as points of great concern in the statement. The Houthis attacked a Saudi airport for the second time in two weeks on Sunday, killing one civilian and injuring 21 others.
“We call on Iran to halt any further actions which threaten regional stability, and urge diplomatic solutions to de-escalate tensions,” the four powers said.
The Associated Press anticipated Pompeo will face his toughest sledding in Asia and Europe, where various parties remain committed to the Iranian nuclear deal and eager for commerce with Iran. The Germans seem especially sour on Pompeo’s call for a firm international alliance against Iran, comparing it in very unflattering terms to former President George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” in the Iraq war.