As Trump sets off for Riyadh, US and Saudi Arabia blacklist Hizbollah member

State department announces first ever "foreign joint terrorist designation" as US president heads to Saudi capital on a visit aimed at boosting trade and defence ties and reaffirming stance against Iranian meddling.

US president Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One for his first international trip as president, which begins with a stop in the Saudi capital Riyadh, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on May 19, 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
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WASHINGTON // The United States and Saudi Arabia announced on Friday their first joint terrorist designation, of a Lebanese Hizbollah leader.

The US state department’s counterterrorism bureau said on Twitter that the blacklisting of Hashem Safieddine by both countries was its first ever “foreign joint terrorist designation”.

The move came on the eve of Donald Trump’s two-day trip to Riyadh and was intended to underscore the US administration’s pledge to take a harder line on containing Iran’s regional influence.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia joined the United States in designating Hashem Safieddine,” the state department said. “As a result, any of his assets held in Saudi Arabia are frozen, and transfers through the Kingdom’s financial sector, are prohibited.”

It said the “action against Mr Safieddine is the latest example of the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia in combating the financing of terrorism”.

The US also announced in the same statement the designation of the leader of ISIL’s affiliate in the Sinai peninsula, Muhammad Al Isawi, though this move was not joined by Riyadh.

Mr Safieddine is a Lebanese citizen born around 1964, according to the US statement, and is a senior leader on Hizbollah’s executive council.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency said he was involved in supporting the Syrian regime and provided advice on “terrorist operations”.

Hizbollah is Iran’s most important proxy group in the Arab world, and Gulf countries declared it a terrorist organisation last year at the height of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran in their rivalry for influence in the Middle East.

On Friday night, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement said it had fired a ballistic missile towards the Saudi capital. The rebels said the missile was a Burkan-1, but neither that claim nor the launch could immediately be confirmed.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV later said the Saudi-led Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war against the Houthis in 2015 was “massively” bombing a missile base outside the Yemeni capital Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthis.

Mr Trump’s administration is rolling back Barack Obama’s tentative engagement with Iran, centred on the nuclear deal that delayed Iran’s ability to build an atomic bomb in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. While the White House has moved away from pledges to tear up or renegotiate the deal, it is signalling that it is willing to take a much harder line on Tehran and provide more support to Riyadh, in exchange for greater Arab burden sharing in the fight against ISIL and Al Qaeda and in maintaining regional security.

This framework will be a key topic on the two-days of talks between Mr Trump, the Saudi leadership, GCC leaders and dozens of heads of state from Muslim countries.

The weekend summit between Muslim leaders and Mr Trump was praised by the imam of Mecca on Friday.

In his Friday sermon, Sheikh Saleh bin Hamid, praised the “blessed meeting that will bring together brothers and friends” on Sunday, SPA reported.

He urged participants “to show realism ... and to stress the negative impact of interferences in regional affairs”, in an apparent reference to Iran.

The imam said interference in the Middle East had “exacerbated confessional, religious, nationalist and ethnic conflicts”, and called on summit participants to act to “stem armed chaos provoked by terrorists and their sponsors”.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters