Wrapping up tour, Pompeo holds ‘constructive’ meeting with Saudi crown prince

US top diplomat’s visit to Neom comes as Israeli business jet seen making rare direct flight to the Red Sea resort city, sparking speculation

US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid, left, and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, second from left, greet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan as they arrive at Neom Bay Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid, left, and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, second from left, greet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan as they arrive at Neom Bay Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said he held a “constructive” meeting with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, as he wrapped up a seven-nation tour that included stops in Israel and Gulf nations.

“Pleasure to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Our security and economic partnership is strong and we’ll continue to harness it to advance efforts to counter malign Iranian influence in the Gulf, economic goals under the Vision 2030 plan, and human rights reform,” tweeted the top American diplomat, describing the meeting as “constructive.”

The meeting was held in the Red Sea resort city of Neom, which borders Egypt and Jordan.

Pompeo, who has been tight-lipped for much of the trip, made no mention of his push for normalization with Israel, which Riyadh has mostly rebuffed.

According to flight-tracking websites, first reported by a Haaretz editor, an Israeli business jet traveled directly to the Saudi city on Sunday at around the time of Pompeo’s visit.

The direct flight, a highly rare occurrence, raised speculation of a high-level Israeli visit.

Although Pompeo has not taken questions from US-based reporters traveling with him over the past 10 days, he told Saudi-owned broadcaster Al-Arabiya Sunday that more countries would normalize with Israel, while refusing to offer any hints as to their identities, a timeline for such moves, or even a ballpark figure for how many countries may be considering establishing ties with Jerusalem.

“Every country that wants a better situation for their own people will come along to recognize Israel,” he said.

Speaking to the station from Dubai in what was likely his final tour of the Persian Gulf as secretary of state, he touted the Trump administration’s Mideast strategy that focused on Iran as “the central threat inside the region” and for a maximum pressure campaign that hampered Iran’s ability to support militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

“It’ll be our policy until our time is complete,” he said, stopping short of saying when he’d cease work as the top US diplomat.

US President Donald Trump has refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, despite the Trump campaign’s futile efforts to block the certification of votes in various states. Reports Sunday indicated that Biden would soon announce Antony Blinken as his secretary of state pick.

Trump is viewed favorably by Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for pulling the US out of a nuclear accord with Iran and reimposing sweeping sanctions that have drained Iran of vital oil revenue.

His tour also included stops in France, Turkey and Israel, including an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and a museum that honors Christian Zionists.

Trump was recently talked back from moving ahead with a military strike on Iran’s main nuclear site by advisors who included Pompeo, according to a New York Times report. When asked about this, a State Department official traveling with Pompeo told reporters that “all options are on the table” and that the Trump administration “will continue to pursue its policies until it’s not in office anymore.”

The Trump administration is attempting to ramp up pressure on Iran before Biden takes office as president. Biden has said he wants to return to rapprochement with Iran. Analysts say Biden is expected to be more willing to engage the Iranians in order to avoid major escalation, although he’s likely to press Tehran on its missile program and not just its nuclear program.

Pompeo started his Gulf tour in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi early Saturday, meeting the emirate’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who’s seen as the day-to-day ruler and the powerful figure behind the country’s major policy decisions.

The State Department said they discussed the progress of the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel — a move that was followed by Bahrain and Sudan announcing plans to do the same. They also discussed “security cooperation and countering Iran’s malign influence in the region, as well as that of China,” the US statement said.

Pompeo “also underscored the importance of Gulf unity,” a reference to strained ties between Qatar and Sunni Gulf countries

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have largely balked at US efforts to reconcile with Qatar, which they accuse of sponsoring terrorism and backing violent Islamist groups across the region.

The quartet cut ties with Qatar in mid-2017 and have demanded the gas-rich Arab state shutter its flagship Al Jazeera news network among other demands, which Qatar has rejected outright, along with the accusations.

Pompeo departed Abu Dhabi for Qatar on Saturday, although there are no direct commercial flights due to the stalemate.

He had lunch with the ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and met with Qatar’s foreign minister. The State Department said Pompeo discussed regional issues, and “the importance of a united Gulf to stand against the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activity, and the risk to the region presented by China.”

Qatar, however, has warm ties with Iran. The two countries also share a massive underwater gas field in the Persian Gulf.

While in Qatar, Pompeo additionally met with representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban, where the warring sides are holding talks about the future of the country. Despite a sharp rise in violence this year, Washington plans to withdraw an estimated 2,500 troops before the middle of January, leaving about 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

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