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In Saudi Arabia, few signs of a crisis as Pompeo and Saudi officials exchange pleasantries

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Saudi crown prince in Riyadh Oct. 16 for talks on the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: The Washington Post)
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Saudi Arabia to highlight U.S. concern over the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the missing journalist whose name Pompeo did not utter in public after arriving in the kingdom.

Pompeo’s talks with three officials, including the king and crown prince, were “direct and frank” about the need to investigate what happened to Khashoggi, said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

But the cameras that recorded the officials’ small talk ahead of the private meetings captured smiles and pleasantries, giving no hint that relations between the two countries are in crisis over Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“We are strong and old allies,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Pompeo before reporters were ushered out. “We face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow.”

Pompeo replied with enthusiasm, “Absolutely.”

And when King Salman welcomed Pompeo, saying, “I hope you are comfortable here,” Pompeo replied that he was and added, “Thank you for accepting my visit on behalf of President Trump.”

The exchanges underscored the administration’s dilemma in deciding how to respond if anyone in Saudi Arabia’s ruling family is determined to have approved harm to Khashoggi, who has written critically of his native country as a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. He has not been seen since Oct. 2, when he went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to attain documents he needed to remarry.

After Turkey accused Saudi Arabia of sending a squad of 15 people to lure Khashoggi to the consulate, torturing him and eventually killing him, Congress has threatened to impose sanctions against the kingdom’s leaders.

Trump has promised “severe punishment” against anyone found responsible. But he also has touted military arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the jobs they bring. Saudi Arabia, which has denied hurting Khashoggi, has promised to retaliate against any sanctions.

In Saudi Arabia, the local news media in recent days has played up the positive elements of the case for the kingdom, including “congratulations” for Riyadh’s offer to cooperate in a joint investigation with Turkey. There is little sense of urgency over its rapidly deteriorating relationship with the United States, or the reputational damage being played out in an international investors conference from which many prominent executives have pulled out over the Khashoggi case.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman Oct. 16 to discuss the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Reuters)

On Sunday night, Trump ordered Pompeo to head to Saudi Arabia to talk face-to-face with Saudi leaders about the crisis. The State Department has said the United States aims to “get to the bottom” of what happened.

There were no indications late Tuesday that Pompeo had come any closer to solving the mystery of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

If there was any confrontation, it was behind the giant wood doors with gilded gold trim in the royal palace where Pompeo met with King Salman and his son.

State Department officials insisted that his private talks with Saudi leaders had focused almost entirely on Khashoggi. He spoke with Trump and national security adviser John Bolton afterward to give them an update.

Pompeo was scheduled to have dinner Tuesday night with the crown prince, who is known for his attempts to modernize the kingdom but also for a wave of arrests and executions that followed his installation as the heir to his father.

During Pompeo’s first trip as secretary of state in April, the crown prince kept him waiting several hours for an appointment because he was presiding over the groundbreaking of an entertainment center. On Tuesday, Pompeo returned to his hotel for an hour as his aides awaited a call that Mohammed was ready to see him.

Pompeo smiled as he sat down in a chair next to Mohammed, who asked: “How was your trip? I hope you don’t have jet lag.”

Pompeo predicted he would feel the time-zone difference in a little while and expressed his gratitude for the meeting. “Thank you for hosting me,” he said.

At the end of the day, Pompeo issued a statement saying that Trump had directed him “to impress upon Saudi Arabia’s leadership that it is essential to determine what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. Today, I met with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Foreign Minister al-Jubeir and did just that.”

Pompeo said the crown prince reassured him that an investigation was already underway and that “the work of the Saudi public prosecutor will produce a full and complete conclusion with full transparency for the world to see.”

“My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials,” Pompeo said, adding that he would travel to Turkey to meet with leaders there.