Pompeo makes diplomatic debut in Riyadh as US top envoy

Pompeo makes diplomatic debut in Riyadh as US top envoy
Washington's newly appointed secretary of state has landed in Riyadh on a tour of the US' key Middle East allies, after vowing to bring some "swagger" back to US diplomacy.
4 min read
28 April, 2018
The former Kansas politician is seen as an anti-Iran hawk [Getty]

Washington's newly appointed secretary of state landed in Riyadh on Saturday on a tour of the US' key Middle East allies, after vowing to bring some "swagger" back to US diplomacy.

Mike Pompeo touched down in Saudi Arabia shortly after authorities in the kingdom said they had intercepted four missiles fired at the south of the country by Yemeni rebels, underlining the tensions in the region.

The Saudi capital is the first stop on a three-day trip that will also take him to Israel and Jordan to update friends on President Donald Trump's plans for the Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo was met on the tarmac in Riyadh by a sizeable Saudi delegation, including the kingdom's foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, and ambassador to the US Khalid bin Salman - brother of the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Trump is widely expected to pull the US out of the Iran accord next month, re-imposing sanctions against Tehran's nuclear program.

Pompeo insists the president has not yet made the decision.

The former CIA chief, who was sworn in as Trump's top diplomat on Thursday and set off within two hours for Brussels, will consult with leaders of Iran's main regional opponents ahead of the announcement.

But he also has a second, more personal mission, to show foreign capitals and his own colleagues that US diplomacy is back on track after the troubled reign of his sacked predecessor Rex Tillerson.

Trump's first secretary of state, a former oil executive, failed to fill senior positions, embarked on unpopular bureaucratic reforms and had conspicuously little chemistry with the president.

Pompeo - a former army officer, businessman and conservative congressman - wanted to set off on the road immediately on being sworn in, in order to reach out to NATO and Middle East allies.

But he has promised to address State Department staff in Washington on his return on Tuesday, and was full of praise for the staff who scrambled to put together his first foreign itinerary.

"I just met with a great group of State Department officers who work here at the mission. They may have been demoralised, but they seemed in good spirits," he said Friday, at NATO headquarters.

"They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back, that we will be out doing the things that they came onboard at the State Department to do," he promised.

The former Kansas politician is seen as an anti-Iran hawk with hardline views about projecting US military might, and his socially conservative opinions might be out of place at the State Department.

But in his former role as director of the CIA he was also a would-be peacemaker - he recently made a secret visit to North Korea to meet dictator Kim Jong Un and lay the groundwork for a historic planned summit with Trump.

Iran hawk

During Pompeo's short confirmation process critics pointed to past statements critical of Islam and of same-sex marriage, which they said made him an unsuitable champion of US ideals abroad.

But there is also optimism, palpable among the officials around him on the trip, that US diplomacy at last has a chief who can speak for the president and will focus on the department's core missions.

After his talks with Jubeir, Pompeo was due to have dinner with Prince Mohammed, who has strengthened his ties to Washington since being appointed in June.

The prince, or MBS as he is commonly known, is the kingdom's de facto ruler and a would-be social reformer who launched an anti-corruption drive to secure his own control over the oil-rich royal elite.

Like Trump and Pompeo, he is a tough opponent of Iran, but his war against the Tehran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen is stumbling and has contributed to the country's large-scale humanitarian disaster.

A Saudi-led coalition air strike overnight killed dozens of Yemeni rebels including two commanders, state media said Saturday.

Trump also wants Riyadh to do more and spend more to support the US-led operation in Syria to defeat the Islamic State group and allow US forces to come home more quickly.

After Saudi Arabia, Pompeo is due to fly on to Israel for talks with staunch US ally Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and then to Jordan, a friend with a long border with war-torn Syria.