RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the crown prince on Thursday to discuss shared security interests in the Gulf and threats from Iran. He also toured a sprawling desert air base in Saudi Arabia where a few thousand U.S. troops are deployed as part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to stymie Iran’s regional reach.
Ahead of his arrival in the capital Riyadh, Pompeo said he’d also raise with the Saudi leadership concerns about human rights and the cases of dual Saudi-American citizens.
Some of these American citizens have been imprisoned in the kingdom as part of a wider crackdown on perceived critics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They include Badr al-Ibrahim, a writer and physician, and Salah al-Haidar, whose mother is prominent women’s rights campaigner Aziza al-Yousef who faces trial for her activism.
Others are barred from leaving Saudi Arabia, like Walid Fitaihi, a Boston-area physician who was swept up in an anti-corruption campaign launched by the crown prince in late 2017.
“The Saudis share our strategic objectives. They are an important ally and partner,” Pompeo told reporters Thursday.
“At the same time we continue to make clear our expectations with respect to a broad range of human rights issues,” he added.
In between his meetings with the king and crown prince, Pompeo met with U.S. military commanders at a Saudi air base where some 2,500 U.S. troops have been stationed since the summer.
The U.S. military presence in the kingdom at the Prince Sultan Air Base includes a squadron of U.S. Air Force F-15E fighters that fly daily missions over Iraq and Syria and two American Patriot missile batteries prepared to knock down any Iranian attack against the Saudi kingdom.
Pompeo said the American military presence is a form of deterrence against Iran “to deliver us to a place where I, as secretary of state, can get the diplomatic outcome that the president is seeking.”
American troops were sent to Saudi Arabia as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to beef up the United States’ military presence in the Middle East in response to escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran following President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers and impose sanctions on the country.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have blamed Iran for a stunning attack last summer against Saudi oil facilities that temporarily halved the kingdom’s daily crude production, an apparent retaliation for sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Iran denies involvement and its allied Yemeni rebel Houthi group says they were behind the attack.
Pompeo reiterated again Thursday that Iran was behind that attack, saying: “No reasonable person has any doubt about where these missiles came from.”
“There is a heightened sense of security for facilities like that and we’re more capable today than we were,” he said.
Saudi Arabia is a decades-long U.S. ally, but that relationship was rocked by the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Congress has also harshly criticized Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, which has led to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
The kingdom, however, remains the biggest buyer of U.S. military arms and Crown Prince Mohammed has cultivated a relationship with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Mideast policy, Jared Kushner.
Pompeo has said the U.S. is prepared to come to the table to talk with Iran, but is not rushing to do so.
“The pressure campaign continues. It’s not just an economic pressure campaign, it’s diplomatic pressures, isolation through diplomacy, as well,” he told reporters before arriving in Saudi Arabia from Ethiopia on Wednesday.
During his time in Riyadh, Pompeo also met Thursday with a group of Saudi women business leaders with Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud. Pompeo departs Friday for Oman, a close U.S. ally that has ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.