Saudi mass purge raises concerns: Tillerson

Mr Rex Tillerson said he did not want to read further into the Saudi situation until it was clearer.
Mr Rex Tillerson said he did not want to read further into the Saudi situation until it was clearer.

He says crackdown is well intended, but is concerned about treatment of detainees

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia's mass purge of elite figures accused of corruption "raises a few concerns", US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, as Washington's Gulf ally probed graft allegedly worth US$100 billion (S$136 billion).

The unprecedented round-up has seen more than 200 princes, ministers and businessmen detained in what has widely been seen as a move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to consolidate his power ahead of his accession to the throne.

Mr 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 detentions, which the authorities said were part of a sweeping anti-graft crackdown.

He said the crackdown was "well intended", but he remained concerned about how those detained would be treated.

He added that he did not want to read further into the situation until it was clearer.

"It's my understanding that they are characterising these as not really arrests at this point, but they are presenting people with evidence of what they think the wrongdoing is to see if there's a willingness to want to make things right," Mr 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."

Mr 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.

"Some of those they are harshly treating have been 'milking' their country for years!" Mr Trump had tweeted.

The domestic upheaval has come as Riyadh is locked in an intensifying proxy war with regional rival Teheran that has triggered a crippling aid blockade of neighbouring Yemen, which threatens what the United Nations has warned could be the world's worst famine in decades.

After a failed missile attack against Riyadh airport last Saturday, which was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, the kingdom has accused Teheran of "direct military aggression".

Asked about the missile, Mr Tillerson suggested the United States may bring Iran before the United Nations Security Council if forensic analysis traces the missile back to the Teheran regime. Supplying such missiles to the rebels would violate Security Council resolutions covering the provision of arms in conflict zones, he said.

That echoed a statement from Ms Nikki Haley, the US 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".

Mr Tillerson said: "We've said for a long time that we are concerned about Iranian support for the Houthi rebels and we do know they are supporting them with weapons. Whether this specific missile came from Iran, it seems very likely, but I think we'd like to get the final forensics on it."

In the interview, Mr Tillerson said Iran must stop its destabilising 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 characterising the start of yet another new war," he said.

"My input would be, let's be a little more cautious about what we say."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi mass purge raises concerns: Tillerson'. Print Edition | Subscribe