US secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrives at the King Khalid International airport in the Saudi capital Riyadh, February 19 2020. Picture: AFP/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrives at the King Khalid International airport in the Saudi capital Riyadh, February 19 2020. Picture: AFP/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

Riyadh — US secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss regional security, that is, Iran, after the US killing last month of a top Iranian general pushed the oil-producing region closer to an all-out war.

In meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the next two days, Pompeo will also raise economic and human rights issues such as the case of a Saudi-American physician who remains on trial after nearly two years in detention, he told reporters traveling with him.

Saudi Arabia has backed the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Iran but cautioned against military action after a series of attacks in 2019 damaged its oil facilities. Riyadh blamed the attacks on Tehran, which denied responsibility.

The US and Iran backed off from intensified conflict in January after a US air strike in Iraq killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and Tehran retaliated with missile strikes on US bases that injured more than 100 troops.

“We are not rushed, the pressure campaign continues. It’s not just an economic pressure campaign ... It’s isolation through diplomacy as well,” Pompeo said before his flight to Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has come in for intense criticism from Western governments and the US Congress over its devastating five-year war in Yemen, as well as the detention of prominent female activists and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul embassy in 2018.

Pompeo’s trip comes three weeks after US President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan, which the Palestinians, the AU and EU have rejected.

Chinese influence

Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo took a veiled swipe at China during a speech to Ethiopian business leaders. It was an apparent amplification of US criticism that Chinese lending for big infrastructure projects pushes poor countries into unsustainable debt.

The Trump administration is seeking to counter significant Chinese influence on the continent with its new “Prosper Africa” trade and investment strategy and a newly established development financier, the US International Development Finance Corporation.

Analysts say the latter is Washington’s attempt at an alternative to Beijing’s sweeping Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to link China by sea and land with Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

“Countries should be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises,” Pompeo said in his speech at the UN Economic Commission for Africa in the Ethiopian capital. “They breed corruption, dependency and instability, not prosperity, sovereignty and progress.”

Pompeo’s visit to Ethiopia was also designed to demonstrate support for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s political reforms despite sporadic outbreaks of political violence, said Kjetil Tronvoll, an Ethiopia expert at Bjørknes University in Oslo.

Ethiopia is due to hold an election on August 29 and Abiy has promised they will be free and fair in a break from decades of repression.

“Abiy is pleased with whatever international attention and recognition he can get ... to bolster his political standing and give legitimacy to his upcoming electoral race,” said Tronvoll.

After meeting Pompeo on Tuesday, Abiy announced that the US would provide financial assistance to Ethiopia as it pursues reforms, but neither government announced details. Later, a senior US official said the US has already committed $37m to support the election, separate to the $1bn the US is already providing in aid.

In his speech on Wednesday, Pompeo named American companies, such as Chevron, Coca-Cola and Bechtel, as longstanding investors in the region.

He confirmed the US is seeking a free trade agreement with Kenya, but offered no new information about negotiations that began earlier this month in Washington.

“If there’s one thing you should know about our president — my boss — you should you know that he loves deals. He wants more to happen between the US and nations all across Africa,” Pompeo told business leaders.

While Pompeo was visiting Senegal, the first stop on his Africa tour, he announced US firms had signed five new memorandums of understanding for infrastructure projects.


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