US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to embark on an expansive tour of the Gulf and wider Middle East this week in a bid to strengthen alliances and reassure key partners about American backing for the war in Yemen and the battle against Iran’s influence in the region.
Washington’s top diplomat will leave on Tuesday for a trip that will take in eight Middle Eastern capitals, including all of the Gulf Cooperation Council members. The eight-day trip will include Amman, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat, and finally Kuwait City, the State Department said on Friday.
His tour of the Gulf is centred on concerns about the recent symbolic vote in the Senate on the Yemen civil war. Trump administration officials have re-pledged their support to the Arab Coalition in order to beat back Iran’s influence in the country where Houthi rebels backed by Tehran overran major population centres in 2014.
Washington is seeking a solution to the three-year-old war in Yemen between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi rebels. Both sides recently agreed to a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah while UN envoy Martin Griffiths seeks to bring about a new round of talks between them after talks in Sweden brought about the ceasefire deal last month.
Mr Pompeo is expected to push for all parties to the conflict in Yemen to follow through on de-escalation agreement they reached at those talks.
The Arab Coalition has documented dozens of Houthi violations of the ceasefire agreement in Hodeidah in recent days and the World Food Programme has revealed that it has evidence that Houthi rebels are siphoning off vital aid for starving people. The agency has threatened to suspend aid reserved for three million Yemenis if the Houthis do not show that the deliveries are reaching their intended recipients.
There is also disquiet in the Middle East among Sunni allies about US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from Syria last month. There are fears that such a vacuum left by the US will allow Iran to gain an even greater foothold in the war-torn country.
As the US pulls back from the Middle East under Mr Trump, Washington wants its allies in the region to shoulder more of the burden in maintaining regional security and stability, amid fears of a resurgence of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State as US forces pull back.
State Department officials say Mr Pompeo also hopes to make moves to heal the alliance of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council on this trip.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic, trade and transport ties with GCC member Qatar over its support for extremist groups and backing of Iran, a regional adversary for Sunni Arab nations.
To strengthen the group, the US is hoping a GCC summit can be arranged as early as the first quarter of this year, a US official told Reuters.
But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash has said that the UAE will likely maintain a diplomatic standoff with Qatar in 2019.
He said that change would only come in Abu Dhabi’s stance if Qatar altered track and stopped its “destructive tendencies” that sparked the Gulf crisis.
"In my estimation, the boycott of Qatar will continue in 2019 because it’s linked to necessary changes in Doha’s destructive tendencies," Mr Gargash said in a Twitter post on January 1. "Qatar will continue to fail to combat the action taken against them, despite its excessive cost."
Another key stop for Mr Pompeo will be Riyadh where he will again meet with the Saudi leadership amid strains over American criticism about the killing of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and accusations that top Saudi leaders were involved, a claim Riyadh denies.
Mr Pompeo will seek an update on the investigation into Khashoggi's death, as well as hold discussions on other regional subjects, the State Department said.
Mr Pompeo’s itinerary will see him land in Amman before travelling on to Cairo for security and energy cooperation talks. He will then fly to Manama, Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, to continue discussions on the Middle East Strategic Alliance aimed at countering Iran.
He then travels to Abu Dhabi before flying to Doha and on to Riyadh. Mr Pompeo will wrap up his tour with stops in Muscat, Oman, and Kuwait City.