DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and later met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid strained relations between Riyadh and Washington.
Blinken’s trip, his second to Saudi Arabia since becoming America’s top diplomat, comes after the kingdom, under Prince Mohammed, was more willing to defy the US in making its own decisions. Riyadh has repeatedly clashed with President Joe Biden over the supply of crude oil to global markets, willingness to partner with Russia in OPEC+ and China-brokered detente with Iran. Biden also vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
However, Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf Arab states, still relies on the US as a guarantor of security for the wider Middle East, as tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have escalated into a series of attacks in recent years. Riyadh and Washington are also working together to try to achieve a lasting ceasefire in Sudan, which has been elusive after weeks of fighting between the country’s army and rival paramilitaries. And Saudi Arabia wants to end its war in Yemen, which is what the US is also seeking
“Under the hood, especially when it comes to security and some other issues like that, the relationship is stronger than it was a year ago,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Gulf Arab Institute in Washington. “It feels tighter, and in some superficial ways it is, but overall it’s stronger.”
Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia more eager to be involved on the international stage, especially after being involved in a prisoner swap in Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Last month, the kingdom hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at an Arab League summit, then immediately followed up with sanctions against Russia’s interior minister.
With oil prices well below $100 a barrel, the Biden administration has no immediate concerns about pump prices during the summer driving season. Washington is likely hoping to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as it warms further to China and Russia. Still, the Saudis likely want assurances that Biden can’t provide when it comes to getting Congress to stop arms sales to the kingdom, Ibish said.
“Khashogji continues to haunt the halls of Congress. I don’t think it’s over in Washington,” Ibish said. “The rest of the world has moved on, but I don’t think Congress has moved on.”
Asked if Blinken was raising human rights issues, including Khashoggi’s death, Daniel Benaim, the deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Peninsula affairs, told reporters last week that “human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with the world and countries in this region.” Benaim declined to discuss details.
“I think what you will see on this trip is a vision of the US-Saudi relationship that is both rooted in our historic foundations of cooperation in the fields of defense and security and counter-terrorism, and includes continued important regional diplomacy when it comes to applies to Yemen and Sudan. and seeks opportunities for regional de-escalation and regional integration,” Benaim said.
He added: “We will not leave a vacuum for our strategic competitors in the region.”
Blinken met with Prince Mohammed early Wednesday, where the State Department said they discussed their “shared commitment to advancing stability, security and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond.”
“The secretary also emphasized that our bilateral relations are strengthened by progress in the field of human rights,” the statement said.
A Saudi statement acknowledged the meeting but offered no specifics.
Blinken’s visit comes after Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, traveled to Jeddah in May to meet with Prince Mohammed. The prince also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, America’s longtime foe, for a meeting late Monday, Saudi state television reported.
In addition to meeting Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials, Blinken will also attend a meeting against the Islamic State in Riyadh and meet with foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The six-nation GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Deeper diplomatic engagement by the United States is likely to produce better results in the long run than simply washing its hands and withdrawing from the region,” wrote Brian Cutulis, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Near East Institute.
However, the challenges are many.
Yemen’s war continues despite prisoner exchanges and efforts to end the conflict. Meanwhile, both parties probably have desires that will not be fulfilled. Saudi Arabia is increasingly pushing for nuclear cooperation, which includes allowing America to enrich uranium in the kingdom, which worries non-proliferation experts because the spinning centrifuges open the door to a possible weapons program. Prince Mohammed said the kingdom would pursue nuclear weapons if Iran had them.
Blinken told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Monday night that the Biden administration continues to believe that “diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively and sustainably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” However, he added. “All options are on the table to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Blinken first traveled to Saudi Arabia as America’s top diplomat last year as part of Biden’s visit there. That trip saw Biden fly directly to the kingdom from Israel. Shortly before that, Saudi Arabia granted overflight rights to Israeli airlines bound for Asia, a major step that saves both flight time and plane fuel.
Diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia seems unlikely at this point, although neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognized Israel in 2020. Saudi Arabia under King Salman has repeatedly called on Israel to allow the Palestinians to establish a state in the occupied West. The Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 war. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now controls the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history, making such a move highly unlikely given the heightened violence and tensions there.
Follow John Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.