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US: Ex-secretary of state says he was unaware of Trump ally's role in Middle East policy

Rex Tillerson testifies he was not aware of billionaire Tom Barrack's involvement in US government discussions about blockade of Qatar
Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, served as Trump's chief diplomat for slightly more than a year between 2017 and 2018 (AFP)
Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, served as Trump's chief diplomat for slightly more than a year between 2017 and 2018 (AFP)

Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified on Monday that he was unaware of any role played by billionaire and one-time fundraiser Tom Barrack in the former Trump administration's policy towards the Middle East.

During a hearing in a New York court, Tillerson said he was not aware of Barrack's involvement in internal US government discussions about the blockade of Qatar, and that the contents of those talks would be considered sensitive.

Barrack, 75, was arrested last year on charges that he and two associates were part of a secretive effort to shape Trump's foreign policy to the benefit of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"You really don't want outside parties to have that information and try to use it to their advantage," Tillerson testified, as quoted by Reuters.

The assertion by Tillerson, a witness for the prosecution, presents a challenge to Barrack's defence, which argues that the Trump administration, and the former president himself, were aware of Barrack's contact with Middle Eastern officials.

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After the unveiling of nine new criminal charges against him, in which prosecutors allege Barrack used his influence to advance the UAE's foreign policy goals in the US without registering as a lobbyist, the billionaire pleaded not guilty.

In one example by prosecutors, the UAE was able to influence the language of a May 2016 speech that then-candidate Trump gave in North Dakota in which he outlined his "America First" energy policy.

According to the indictment, Barrack had informally advised US officials on Middle East policy and had also sought to be appointed to a senior role in the Trump administration, such as a special envoy to the Middle East.

In court filings, prosecutors accused Barrack of providing UAE government officials "with sensitive non-public information about developments within the Administration, including information about the positions of multiple senior United States government officials with respect to the Qatari blockade conducted by the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries".

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an embargo on Qatar over allegations that it supported "terrorism" and closer relations with Iran. Doha has denied the charges and says the boycott was aimed at curtailing its independence.

At the beginning of 2021, the countries moved to lift the embargo and lift restrictions on Doha.

Tillerson, former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, served as Trump's chief diplomat for slightly more than a year between 2017 and 2018. In closed-door testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2019, Tillerson said he was "surprised" by the news of Saudi Arabia's plan to impose a blockade on Qatar.

He said he was not made aware of the plans, while Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner had advance notice of Riyadh's plan.

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