RIYADH - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday arrived in Riyadh, where he is set to ask Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ensure the killers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are held accountable.
The top US diplomat, on an extensive Middle East tour, embarked on his second politically sensitive visit to Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi's murder inside its Istanbul consulate sparked an international outcry.
"We will continue to have a conversation with the crown prince and the Saudis about ensuring the accountability is full and complete with respect to the unacceptable murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters in Qatar, before flying to Riyadh.
"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."
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered on October 2 in what Saudi Arabia called a "rogue" operation, tipping the kingdom into one of its worst diplomatic crises and subsequently straining ties between Riyadh and Washington.
Pompeo was speaking in Doha after meeting his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. He also met the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, before heading to Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo's visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will be hosted by Prince Mohammed, is part of an extensive eight-day trip to Amman, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat, and finally Kuwait City.
SMILES WITH MBS
US President Donald Trump has brushed aside international outrage to stand by Prince Mohammed over the murder of Khashoggi, whose corpse was dismembered inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.
His support has come despite the US Central Intelligence Agency's reported conclusion that Prince Mohammed very likely ordered the murder. A bipartisan resolution approved by the US Senate last month also held the crown prince responsible for the killing.
Riyadh prosecutors have announced indictments against 11 people, and are seeking the death penalty against five of them. But Prince Mohammed, whose right-hand aides were allegedly involved in the murder, was exonerated by prosecutors.
On a previous visit to Riyadh at the height of the Khashoggi affair, Pompeo's broad smiles with the crown prince outraged some Americans.
However, Trump has said Washington wants to preserve the alliance with the oil-rich kingdom, which he sees as a bulwark against common foe Iran and a lucrative buyer of US arms.
Rights groups have called on Pompeo to also press Prince Mohammed over the jailing of women activists in the kingdom, amid claims that many of them faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation.
"I am struck by what is not included in Pompeo's itinerary: the brave women activists of Saudi Arabia, who are being held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity," Alia al-Hathloul wrote in The New York Times Sunday.
Hathloul's sister, Loujain, is among more than a dozen activists arrested last May -- just before the historic lifting of Saudi Arabia's decades-long ban on women drivers.
During his visit to Qatar, Pompeo refused to comment on reports Washington had recently considered military action against Tehran.
He also called on Qatar and other Gulf countries to end the worst political rift in the region for years, which has seen Doha diplomatically and economically isolated by neighboring former allies for the past 19 months.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt -- all US allies -- cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups and seeking closer ties to Saudi arch-rival Iran.
Qatar -- also a US ally -- denies the allegations and accuses the countries of seeking regime change.
"As for the GCC... we are all more powerful when we're working together when we have common challenges in the region and around the world," Pompeo said, referring to the six member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
"Disputes between countries that have a shared objective are never helpful."
He added that "President Trump and I both believe the ongoing dispute in the region has gone on too long".
However, Pompeo later admitted in a Q&A session with US embassy staff in Doha that no progress was made on resolving the issue.
Mediation efforts by the United States, which at first appeared to back the boycott of Qatar, have stalled, as highlighted by the recent resignation of US envoy Anthony Zinni.
For Washington, turning the page on the crisis is essential for the successful launch of the Strategic Alliance of the Middle East (MESA), which is a NATO-style security pact that includes Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan.
The US and Qatar held the second "strategic dialogue" between the two countries on Sunday, and signed agreements on defence, education and culture.