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Pompeo arrives in Riyadh vowing to tell Saudis to hold Khashoggi killers ‘accountable’

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via Reuters | US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Doha, Qatar, January 13, 2019.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday arrived in Riyadh, where he is set to ask Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ensure the killers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are held accountable.

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The top US diplomat, on an extensive Middle East tour, embarked on his second politically sensitive visit to Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi's October 2 murder inside its Istanbul consulate sparked an international outcry.

"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 in Qatar, before flying to Riyadh.

"So, we'll continue to talk about that and make sure we have all the facts so that they are held accountable, certainly by the Saudis but by the United States as well."

He was speaking in Doha after meeting his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. He also met the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, before heading to Saudi Arabia.

But while the top US diplomat addressed the Khashoggi murder in Qatar on Sunday, it was not a priority issue for Pompeo, explained Ziad Majed, a Middle East analyst at the American University of Paris.

“I’m not sure he is there mainly for the Jamal Khashoggi question. In my opinion, he is there mainly for the Iranian question and for clarifying what President Trump meant when he spoke about withdrawing from Syria. So, he definitely has to mention Jamal Khashoggi, and he has to show that the US is concerned with that, but I think they [the Trump administration] are much more on the same line [as the Saudis] – they don’t want the Saudi crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] to be hurt by this affair,” said Majed.

Allegations of torture of female prisoners in Saudi prison

Pompeo’s visit came as human rights groups have been calling on Saudi Arabia to provide independent international monitors access to detained female prisoners amid mounting reports of torture and sexual harassment in Saudi prisons.

Hours before Pompeo arrived in Riyadh, The New York Times published an op-ed column by the sister of prominent jailed Saudi activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, calling on the top US diplomat to speak up about the detention of Saudi women’s rights activists.

The column claimed that a former top aide to the Saudi crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani, was present several times while al-Hathloul had been tortured in detention.

Acknowledging that Pompeo is set to seek an update on the Khashoggi murder investigation, al-Hathloul’s sister, Alia al-Hathloul, noted that, “I am struck by what is not included in Mr. Pompeo’s itinerary: the brave women activists of Saudi Arabia, who are being held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity.

On a previous visit to Riyadh not long after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Pompeo's broad smiles with the Saudi crown prince outraged some Americans.

However, President Trump has said Washington wants to preserve the alliance with the kingdom, although the US Senate has clearly blamed Prince Mohammed for the murder.

Qatar rift threatens unity on Iran, says Pompeo

Pompeo also called on Qatar and other Gulf countries to end the worst political rift in the region 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".

However, Pompeo later admitted in a Q&A session with US embassy staff in Doha that no progress was made on resolving the issue.

"(It's) not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday," he said. "And I regret that."

He said he raised the standoff at length with his counterparts in Qatar, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain.

The US, which at first appeared to back the boycott of Qatar, has so far been unsuccessful in trying to end the dispute.

Attempts at mediation have stalled, as highlighted by the recent resignation of US envoy Anthony Zinni.

"It was time for change and he made his decision to move on but America's commitment remains unchanged," said Pompeo of Zinni.

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

The US and Qatar held the second "strategic dialogue" between the two countries on Sunday, and signed agreements on defence, education and culture.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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