DUBAI, June 7 (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday before meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid tensions between Riyadh and Washington.
Blinken’s trip, his second to Saudi Arabia as the top U.S. diplomat, comes after the kingdom under Prince Mohammed has preferred to ignore U.S. discretion.
Riyadh has repeatedly clashed with President Joe Biden over the supply of crude to global markets, its willingness to cooperate with Russia in OPEC+ and a China-brokered detente with Iran. Biden also pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in the wake of the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
However, like other Gulf Arab states, Saudi Arabia remains dependent on the United States as a security guarantor in the wider Middle East as tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have spilled over into a series of attacks in recent years.
Riyadh and Washington have also been working together to try to secure a durable ceasefire in Sudan, which has been elusive amid weeks of fighting between the country’s military and rival paramilitary forces.Saudi Arabia Wants an End to the War in Yemen, and That’s What the U.S. Seeks
“Behind the scenes, especially on security and some other similar issues, the relationship between the two countries is stronger than it was a year ago,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It looks more tense — and it is on some surfaces — but it’s stronger overall.”
Blinken came to Saudi Arabia more eager to participate in international affairs, especially after participating in the prisoner exchange in Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Russia immediately sanctioned the interior minister after the kingdom hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at an Arab League summit last month.
With oil prices well below $100 a barrel, the Biden administration isn’t immediately concerned about pump prices during the summer driving season. Washington may indeed want to leverage its security ties with Saudi Arabia as relations with China and Russia heat up. However, Ibis said the Saudis may want assurances that Biden would not be able to provide if Congress stopped arms sales to the kingdom.
“Kalshoggi is still haunting the halls of Congress. I don’t think it’s over in Washington,” Ibish said. “The rest of the world is progressing, but I don’t think Congress is progressing.”
Asked about Blinken raising human rights issues, including Khashoggi’s death, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benam told reporters last week, “Human rights are an issue that this administration has with countries around the world and countries in the region. The backbone of the deal.” Benaim declined to discuss specifics.
“I think what you’ll see on this tour is a vision of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that’s rooted in the pillars of our historic cooperation in areas like defense and security and counterterrorism, including important regional diplomacy going on in Yemen and Sudan, And look for opportunities for regional de-escalation and regional integration,” Benim said.
“We will not leave a vacuum for our strategic competitors in the region,” he added.
Earlier Wednesday, Blinken met with Prince Mohammed, and the State Department said they discussed their “shared commitment to promoting stability, security and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond.”
“The secretary also emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” a statement added.
A Saudi statement acknowledged the meeting but gave no specifics.
Blinken’s visit comes after Biden’s national security adviser, Jack Sullivan, traveled to Jeddah in May and met with Prince Mohammed. The Saudi prince also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a longtime foe of the United States, on Monday night, according to Saudi state television.
In addition to meeting Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials, Blinken will attend an anti-ISIS conference in Riyadh and meet foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council. The six-nation GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“In the long run, deeper U.S. diplomatic engagement may yield better outcomes than simply washing hands and withdrawing troops from the region,” wrote Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
However, the challenges are many.
The war in Yemen continues despite prisoner swaps and efforts to end the conflict. At the same time, both parties may have unfulfilled wishes. Saudi Arabia has increasingly pushed for nuclear cooperation, including U.S. permission to enrich uranium in the kingdom — worrying nonproliferation experts because the spinning centrifuges open the door to a possible weapons program. Prince Mohammed has said that if Iran has nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will seek them.
Blinken told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night that the Biden administration still believes that “diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively and sustainably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” However, he added: “All options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.”
Blinken visited Saudi Arabia for the first time as the top U.S. diplomat last year as part of Biden’s visit to the kingdom. On that trip, Biden flew directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Just before that, Saudi Arabia allowed El Al overflight rights to Asia – a major move that allowed them to save flight time and jet fuel.
While neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have recognized Israel in 2020, Saudi Arabia currently appears unlikely to recognize Israel diplomatically. Saudi Arabia under King Salman has repeatedly called on Israel to allow the Palestinians to create a state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 war. But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now in charge of the most right-wing and most religious government in Israel’s history, such a move is highly unlikely given the heightened violence and tension there. (Associated Press)
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