WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Riyadh on Sunday, promising to press the Saudi royal family for greater accountability on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and American resident killed inside a Saudi Consulate in October.
But critics do not expect a truly forceful reprimand of the Saudis from Trump's chief diplomat, and some experts said the real audience for Pompeo’s message on Khashoggi may be the newly empowered House Democratic majority, which is preparing to grill the administration on its handling of the journalist's murder and a slew of other foreign policy issues.
Pompeo's stop in Saudi Arabia – part of a broader diplomatic swing through the Middle East – is his second since Khashoggi's killing. He is scheduled to meet top Saudi leaders, including the kingdom's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto ruler.
Lawmakers briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel say the evidence shows the crown prince was complicit in Khashoggi's murder. Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi regime, and the crown prince in particular.
"We will continue to have a conversation with the crown prince and the Saudis about ensuring that the accountability is full and complete with respect to the unacceptable murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters traveling with him on the Middle East trip. "So we’ll continue to talk about that and make sure we have all the facts so that they are held accountable, certainly by the Saudis but by the United States as well where appropriate."
A senior State Department official told reporters that Pompeo would press Saudi Arabia to provide “a credible narrative for what happened in the consulate and subsequent events.” The remarks came during a Jan. 4 media briefing to preview Pompeo's trip.
This official, who spoke on background to adhere to State Department policy, said that so far, the Saudi account has not “hit that threshold of credibility and accountability.” He said the administration wants to work with the Saudis to underscore it’s “in their interest to pursue this as aggressively as they can to get this albatross off their backs.”
But foreign policy experts say it sounds like Pompeo's goal is to quiet the controversy rather than hold the Saudis accountable. Lawmakers in both parties have looked for ways to penalize Saudi Arabia for its role in Khashoggi's death, including curbing U.S. support for the Saudi's bombing campaign in Yemen and halting arms sales to the kingdom.
"They have to demonstrate to the Hill and to the American public that they’re taking this thing seriously," said Gerald Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen and now a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute. But as long as the Saudis refuse to acknowledge the possible role of the crown prince, "we’re going to have a problem reconciling where we are with Saudi Arabia," he said.
Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank, said the White House "would love for this to just disappear because the administration wants to have close ties to Saudis, to continue with business as usual."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Secretary of State Pompeo to press Saudi Arabia to provide a 'credible narrative' on Jamal Khashoggi's murder