Pompeo Presses Saudi Crown Prince on War, Murder and Diplomatic Rifts

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince at the royal palace in the kingdom’s capital on Monday with the aim of pressing the prince on a range of thorny issues — including war, murder and diplomatic rifts — that have weakened the American-Saudi alliance and increased tensions among Arab nations.

“I want to talk to you about a couple of places we’ve been,” Mr. Pompeo told Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, at the start of their morning meeting. “We think we learned a lot along the way that will be important going forward.”

Mr. Mohammed, apparently sensing the delicate political situation, said, “we try to add more positivity as much as we can.”

Mr. Pompeo has been traveling through the Arab world since leaving Washington on Jan. 7, and Saudi Arabia is the most important stop on the trip.

At each stop, Mr. Pompeo has talked about the importance of countering Iran, a Persian country whose Shiite Muslim government is often at odds with the Sunni Muslim rulers of Arab nations.

Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main rival in the Middle East, though Prince Mohammed’s actions are roiling the region and unsettling the kingdom’s relationship with the United States.

On Monday morning, Mr. Pompeo left the Al Faisaliah Hotel in central Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, with a list of problems to discuss with Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman.

The list included the killing by Saudi agents in October of Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken Saudi dissident who lived in Virginia; the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, a crucial military partner of the United States; and the Saudi-led air war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with many Yemenis starving.

The United States Embassy in Riyadh wrote on Twitter that Mr. Pompeo and Prince Mohammed agreed Monday on the “need for de-escalation and adherence” to agreements reached at peace talks in Sweden over the Yemen war.

Mr. Pompeo stressed the need for a cease-fire and pullback of forces in the port city of Hudaydah, the embassy said. “A comprehensive political solution is the only way to end the conflict,” it said.

Human rights abuses within Saudi Arabi are also under the international spotlight. On Sunday, The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Alia al-Houthlal, the sister of a women’s rights activist imprisoned in Riyadh, Loujain al-Houthlal, beseeching Mr. Pompeo to ask Prince Mohammed for the release of her sister.

Ms. Houthlal wrote that her sister had been tortured in prison, and that a close associate of the prince, Saud al-Qahtani, who has been implicated in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, was present at several torture sessions.

Over the weekend, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who had fled the kingdom, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, arrived in Canada after being granted asylum by Ottawa.

She has talked of the plight of women in the Saudi Arabia and the oppressive system of male guardianship over women, despite Prince Mohammed’s support for some social reform policies.

Amid the growing crises, Mr. Trump has voiced his backing of Prince Mohammed, who has secured power in the kingdom by ousting all rivals, including detaining other members of the royal family in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

But many other American officials, including in the State Department, Pentagon, C.I.A. and Congress, have been more circumspect and increasingly view the prince as an unreliable partner.

The visit with Prince Mohammed on Monday was the first for Mr. Pompeo since an emergency trip in October, as the diplomatic crisis over the murder of Mr. Kashoggi was ballooning. In his previous visit, Mr. Pompeo flew to Riyadh and posed for photos in which he shook hands with the prince and smiled, and then came under intense criticism for the images of bonhomie.

At a news conference on Sunday in the Qatari capital, Doha, Mr. Pompeo said he would discuss the murder with Prince Mohammed and other officials to “make sure we have all the facts so that they are held accountable, certainly by the Saudis but by the United States as well where appropriate.”

Mr. Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit team while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Turkish officials have said. The C.I.A. assessed that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.

President Trump has declined to endorse that finding and has said the United States would continue its relationship with Saudi Arabia and with the prince, who is close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and main Middle East adviser.

Mr. Pompeo has supported that viewpoint but has also spoken on occasion of the need for accountability by the Saudis. Middle East experts working in the State Department have concluded that the Saudis have not met the threshold of accountability yet.

A Saudi court has begun trial proceedings for 11 suspects in the Khashoggi case, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of them. In October, the government said it had arrested 18 people, and it is unclear what has happened to the other seven.

The Saudi government has also removed a few senior officials from their posts, including Mr. Qahtani, the close associate of the prince who directed the kingdom’s social media efforts.

The prince has been the driver behind Saudi Arabia playing a leading role in both the Qatar blockade and the Yemen war.

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