U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived Tuesday in Saudi Arabia and later met 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 has been more willing to disregard the U.S. in striking its own decisions. Riyadh has clashed repeatedly with President Joe Biden on its supply of crude oil to global markets, its willingness to partner with Russia in OPEC+ and reaching a détente with Iran mediated by China. Biden also pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
However, Saudi Arabia still relies — like other Gulf Arab nations — on the U.S. to be the security guarantor for the wider Middle East as tensions over Iran’s nuclear program in recent years have spilled over into a series of attacks. Riyadh and Washington also have been working in tandem to try and strike a lasting cease-fire in Sudan, which has been elusive during weeks of fighting between that country’s military and a rival paramilitary force. And Saudi Arabia wants to end its war in Yemen, something also sought by the U.S.
“Under the hood, especially when it comes to security and a few other matters like that, the relationship 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 strained — and in some superficial ways it is — but it is overall stronger.”
Blinken arrived to a Saudi Arabia more eager to engage internationally, particularly after being involved in prisoner swaps in Moscow’s war on Ukraine. The kingdom hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last month at an Arab League summit, then Russia’s sanctioned interior minister immediately after.
With oil prices well below $100 a barrel, the Biden administration doesn’t have an immediate concern over prices at the pump in the summer driving season. Washington likely does hope to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as it gets warmer with China and Russia. However, the Saudis likely want guarantees that Biden can’t provide when it comes to Congress stopping arms sales to the kingdom, Ibish said.
“Khashoggi still haunts the halls of Congress. I don’t think that’s over in Washington,” Ibish said. “The rest of the world has moved on, but I don’t think that Congress has moved on.”
Asked about Blinken bringing up human rights issues, including Khashoggi’s death, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim told journalists last week that “human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region.” Benaim declined to discuss specifics.
“I think what you’ll see on this trip is a vision of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that’s both rooted in our historic mainstays of cooperation in areas like defense and security and counterterrorism, includes ongoing important regional diplomacy when it comes to Yemen and Sudan, and looks for 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 Prince Mohammed early Wednesday, with State Department saying they discussed their “shared commitment to advance stability, security, and prosperity across 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 offered no specifics.
Blinken’s visit comes after Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, traveled to Jeddah in May and met Prince Mohammed. The prince also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a longtime foe of America, for a meeting late Monday, Saudi state television reported.
Outside of meeting Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials, Blinken also will attend an anti-Islamic State meeting in Riyadh and meet with foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council. The six-nation GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“A deeper diplomatic engagement by the United States is likely to produce better outcomes in the long run than simply washing our hands and pulling back from the region,” wrote Brian Katulis, the vice president of policy for the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
However, the challenges are many.
The Yemen war continues despite prisoner swaps and efforts to end the conflict. Meanwhile, both sides likely have wants that won’t be fulfilled. Saudi Arabia increasingly has pushed for a nuclear cooperation that includes America allowing it to enrich uranium in the kingdom — something that worries nonproliferation experts as spinning centrifuges opens the door to a possible weapons program. Prince Mohammed has said the kingdom would pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran had one.
Blinken on Monday night told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that the Biden administration continues to believe “that diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively, and sustainably prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” However, he added: “All options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Blinken first traveled to Saudi Arabia as America’s top diplomat last year as part of Biden’s trip there. That trip saw Biden fly directly from Israel to the kingdom. Just before it, Saudi Arabia allowed overflight rights to Israeli airlines heading to Asia — a major move allowing them to save both flying time and jet fuel.
A diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia though appears unlikely at the moment, despite neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognizing Israel in 2020. 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 seized by Israel in the 1967 war. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now oversees the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history, making such a move highly unlikely given heightened violence and tensions there.