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The black hole in Pompeo’s Middle East speech: Saudi Arabia

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/10/2019 Adam Taylor
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a speech at the American University in Cairo on Jan. 10, 2019. (Amr Nabi/AP) © Amr Nabil/AP Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a speech at the American University in Cairo on Jan. 10, 2019. (Amr Nabi/AP)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a speech at the American University in Cairo on Wednesday to repudiate the previous U.S. administration’s policy in the Middle East. In a swipe at President Barack Obama, who had delivered his own speech in the Egyptian capital almost 10 years ago, Pompeo praised what he described as the Trump administration’s efforts to contain Iranian influence and beat back extremist forces such as the Islamic State.

But a variety of issues and subjects were omitted from Pompeo’s vision for the region. One was glaring: Saudi Arabia.

Although the Saudi kingdom is a longtime U.S. ally and a key partner in Trump administration policies, it was barely mentioned by the top U.S. diplomat. Pompeo referred to Saudi Arabia only in passing when talking about the campaigns against the Islamic State and Iran and when discussing where he would travel next in his Middle East tour.

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Pompeo did mention the diminished U.S. presence in the kingdom, but he framed it as indicative of how the United States doesn’t intend to permanently occupy countries. “We once had tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Now that number is a tiny fraction.” He also briefly praised new diplomatic links the kingdom was developing with Iraq.

But the references to Saudi Arabia were scarce, especially considering the kingdom’s clout. Saudi Arabia is one of the Middle East’s most populated countries and a hub of economic activity, vital to the oil markets. It has the largest military budget in the region, and its leader, King Salman, is the custodian of the holiest sites in Islam, adding to the nation’s importance in fighting extremism among Muslims.

To be fair to Pompeo, Obama also largely omitted mention of the kingdom during his 2009 speech — referring just once to how the United States welcomed “Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue” as an effort to bring people of different religions together. The Obama administration would go on to have a difficult relation with the Saudis, in part because of its attempts find to common ground with the Iranian government.

But the Trump administration has pursued a different course with Saudi Arabia: Riyadh was the first international stop for Trump after he became president in 2017. Pompeo quoted a speech that Trump gave during this visit — when he said it was time for Muslim-majority nations to “meet history’s great test — to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism” — but he said only that it was delivered during a trip to the “region.”

More important, the Saudi Arabia of 2019 is a different place than the Saudi Arabia of 2009, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman leading the country through controversial economic changes and sending its military into bloody conflict in neighboring Yemen.

Pompeo has traveled to Riyadh several times to represent the Trump administration, and he has met with the crown prince on multiple occasions. During a visit in April, Pompeo said that Mohammed’s economic plan, called Vision 2030 by the Saudi state, and domestic overhauls were “inspiring initiatives” and that he supported the leadership demonstrated by the crown prince.

But Mohammed was not mentioned in Pompeo’s Cairo speech. Probably for good reason: The killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi 100 days ago in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has cast a shadow over the crown prince’s leadership and prompted questions about the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Pompeo has defended that alliance. “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East,” he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in November. According to Politico, in an early draft of his Cairo speech, the secretary of state had planned to laud Riyadh’s handling of the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing. In the end, however, that reference appeared to have been cut — and Saudi Arabia was just a passing thought in Pompeo’s vision for the Middle East.

Read more:

Trump’s Syria withdrawal (if there is one), explained

Lindsey O. Graham’s description of Trump’s Syria withdrawal plan sounds suspiciously like a plan to stay in Syria

The stark contrast between Trump’s trip to Iraq and Obama’s 2009 visit

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