Secretary of State Pompeo Stresses Need for Gulf Unity

RIYADH (Reuters/AP) -
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sunday. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored the need for unity in the Gulf on Sunday during a brief visit to the Saudi capital.

“Gulf unity is necessary and we need to achieve it,” Pompeo said at a news conference.

Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, cut off travel and trade ties with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and arch rival Iran.

Doha has denied the charges and has said the countries aim to curtail its sovereignty.

Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman, whose country along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is embroiled in a row with Qatar that had hobbled Gulf Arab unity and frustrated the U.S. as it seeks to blunt growing Iranian assertiveness. The ex-CIA chief had arrived in Riyadh a day earlier, shortly after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles at Saudi Arabia’s southern city of Jizan, killing one person and underscoring what U.S. officials said is a growing threat emanating from Iran.

Senior U.S. officials traveling with Pompeo blamed Iran for smuggling the missiles into Yemen. They said the incident highlighted the importance of the Trump administration’s push to counter Iranian-supported aggression in the region. Iran has backed the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and is helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government fight rebels there.

Pompeo’s meetings in Saudi Arabia, which will be followed by discussions in Israel and Jordan, come just weeks ahead of several key dates that have potential to further roil the volatile region.

Trump has set a May 12 deadline to decide whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, something he appears likely to do despite heavy pressure to stay in from European and other parties.

Two days later, the U.S. plans to open its new embassy in Jerusalem. The embassy move is deeply opposed by the Palestinians, who on May 15 will mark the anniversary of what they term the “nabka,” or catastrophe, when they fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

On Friday at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, the first stop on his trip, Pompeo repeated Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the Iran deal unless it is significantly strengthened. He said the U.S. was “unlikely” to stay in if that was not done.

“Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the shortcomings, the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal past this May,” Pompeo said.

Also looming over the trip is uncertainty over Trump’s policy on Syria, which has shifted between a speedy all-out withdrawal of American forces from the country and leaving a lasting footprint to deter Iran from completing a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.