By Agence France-Presse
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited American troops in Saudi Arabia Thursday after talks with King Salman on the second day of a visit focused on countering Iran.
The United States began building up its military presence at the Prince Sultan airbase, south of Riyadh, last year following a series of attacks in the Gulf that Washington and Riyadh have blamed on their common foe Iran.
“Pompeo’s visit to Prince Sultan airbase and a nearby US Patriot battery highlights the longstanding US-Saudi security relationship and reaffirms America’s determination to stand with Saudi Arabia in the face of Iranian malign behaviour,” the State Department said in a statement.
It said the US deployment of missile defence systems and fighter jets was part of “a defensive mission to deter and protect against any future attacks”.
Pompeo’s three-day visit to close US ally Saudi Arabia comes in the wake of a US-ordered drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, in Baghdad on January 3.
The killing sparked a surge in regional tensions and Iran responded with missile strikes on bases hosting US forces in Iraq.
US President Donald Trump and his oil-rich ally Riyadh have accused Iran of attacking tankers in the Gulf and Saudi oil installations, incidents which roiled global energy markets last year.
Tehran denies involvement in the attacks and Riyadh has since appeared keen to engage in cautious diplomacy to ease friction.
Before visiting the airbase, Pompeo held talks with King Salman in Riyadh.
Later, the top US diplomat met de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and is also expected to meet deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman.
Pompeo faces a tough balancing act in Saudi Arabia as he said he would also discuss “human rights” alongside economic issues during his visit.
The 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which sparked global condemnation of the powerful crown prince, has tested relations between the two allies.
Five US senators have urged Pompeo to press Saudi Arabia for a resolution of a case against dual US-Saudi national Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor who was allegedly tortured and detained without charge for nearly two years, with his family banned from traveling.
The kingdom also faces criticism over the jailing and trial of women activists, some of whom have accused interrogators of sexual harassment and torture in detention.
“The Saudis share our strategic objectives, they are an important ally,” Pompeo told reporters, without saying whether any specific cases were raised with Saudi leaders.
“At the same time we continue to make clear our expectations with respect to a broad range of human rights issues which include the return of people… that aren’t being held in a way that we think is consistent with the rule of law,” he said.