U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia that snared at least 11 princes, a billionaire investor and former government officials was “well intended,” but he remained concerned about how those detained would be treated.
Tillerson, speaking in an interview as he flew from Beijing to Vietnam, said he called Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir earlier in the week to seek clarity on the Nov. 4 detentions, which authorities said were part of a sweeping anti-graft crackdown. Tillerson added that he didn’t want to read further into the situation until it was clearer.
Rex Tillerson and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October.Photographer: Alex Brandon/AFP via Getty Images
“It’s my understanding that they’re characterizing these as not really arrests at this point, but they’re presenting people with evidence of what they think the wrongdoing is to see if there’s a willingness to want to make things right,” Tillerson said. “My own view is that it does, it raises a few concerns until we see more clearly how these particular individuals are dealt with.”
Tillerson struck a cautious tone, but ultimately appeared to take the same view as President Donald Trump, who sent a tweet on Nov. 7 backing Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince. Trump wrote that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman “know exactly what they are doing.”
Trump and Tillerson were responding to King Salman’s order to detain the princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers and businessmen, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men. The move reinforced expectations that he was clearing any remaining obstacles to the crown prince’s eventual accession to the throne.
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The arrests come at a tumultuous time for Saudi Arabia and the region. Just days before, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia and announced he was resigning his post. That fueled speculation that Saudi leaders had demanded he do so, and that he wasn’t being allowed to go home.
Tillerson said that al-Jubeir assured him Hariri had resigned of his own accord, although he said the former prime minister, who has dual Saudi and Lebanese citizenship, would need to return home to formally leave his post. Asked if Hariri was being held against his will, Tillerson replied, “I have no indication that is the case.”
The same day as Hariri’s arrest, Saudi Arabia shot down a missile fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen towards its international airport. Saudi officials blamed Iran and called it an “act of war.” Asked about the missile, Tillerson suggested the U.S. may bring Iran before the United Nations Security Council if forensic analysis traces the missile back to the Tehran regime.
Supplying such missiles to the rebels would violate Security Council resolutions covering the provision of arms in conflict zones, Tillerson said. That echoed a statement from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, who said the missile “may” be of Iranian origin. She called on international partners “to take necessary action to hold the Iranian regime accountable for these violations.”
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“We’ve said for a long time that we are concerned about Iranian support for the Houthi rebels and we do know they’re supporting them with weapons,” Tillerson said. “Whether this specific missile came from Iran, it seems very likely, but I think we’d like to get the final forensics on it.”
Iran denied supplying Houthi fighters with missiles, and accused Saudi Arabia of trying to escalate tensions.
In the interview, Tillerson said Iran must stop its destabilizing activity and all sides need to lower the rhetoric. He said Saudi Arabia was not causing turmoil, saying it was only fighting forces that had overthrown “the legitimate Yemen government.”
“All the parties need to be careful about characterizing the start of yet another new war,” Tillerson said. “My input would be let’s be a little more cautious about what we say.”