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Blinken visits Saudi Arabia to work on strained ties

June 7, 2023

Washington and Riyadh have had several disagreements in the past on topics such as Iran, regional security and oil prices. This visit is Blinken's first since the kingdom restored diplomatic ties with Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Jeddah.
Blinken emphasized on the progress of human rights as well.Image: Saudi Royal Court/REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday with the aim to repair and stabilize the strained relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

Over the years, disagreements on various issues, including Iran, regional security, and oil prices, have deepened the divide between the two nations.

During his visit, Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, and the discussions primarily focused on enhancing economic cooperation, particularly in clean energy and technology sectors, according to a statement from the State Department.

Apart from meeting with the Crown Prince, Blinken had scheduled meetings with other high-ranking Saudi officials in Riyadh, the capital, and Jeddah, a coastal city.

This visit follows a recent high-level visit by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who traveled to Saudi Arabia on May 7.

Riyadh has plans to further reduce oil production which is a point of contention with Washington. The US has also expressed concerns over the kingdom's human rights record and disagreements on US policy towards Iran.

The visit is Blinken's first since the kingdom restored diplomatic ties with Iran. The US offered cautious support for the deal that was sealed in China, the rising power making inroads in the Middle East.

'Candid' talks despite 'differences'

A US official told Reuters that talks between Blinken and Mohammed bin Salman were "open" and "candid."

"There was a good degree of convergence on potential initiatives where we share the same interests, while also recognising where we have differences," the official said.

"They discussed the potential for normalization of relations with Israel and agreed to continued dialogue on the issue."

Competition for influence in region

The objectives of Blinken's trip include re-establishing influence over oil prices, countering Chinese and Russian influence in the region, and fostering hopes for the eventual normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

While speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Blinken said that advocating for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia aligned with the US national security interest. However, he cautioned that such normalization would not happen quickly.

Discouraging a closer Saudi-Chinese relationship is probably the most important element of Blinken's visit, said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at Washington-based think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

"[Blinken should explain] why Chinese interests do not align with Saudi Arabia, and why closer relations in a strategic way inhibit closer relations with Washington," Goldberg told the Reuters news agency.

The US also hopes that Saudi Arabia will agree to normalize relations with Israel, which has already built ties with several other Arab countries under the Abraham Accords brokered by the Donald Trump administration.

Rocky relations

US-Saudi relations faced a rocky start in 2019 when President Joe Biden, during his campaign, stated that he would treat Riyadh as a pariah if elected. Shortly after taking office in 2021, Biden released a US intelligence assessment implicating Prince Mohammed in the operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Even President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 did little to ease tensions. Riyadh has increasingly sought to reassert its regional influence while showing less interest in aligning with US priorities in the region.

Prince Mohammed, 37, has steered an independent foreign policy course, also hosting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday. 

Recently, he embraced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at an Arab League summit in May. Assad invited back to the summit for the first time since the start of the 12-year civil war.

Syria: Bashar Assad returns to the international stage

To reduce its dependence on crude oil, Saudi Arabia has been implementing extensive economic reforms and opening up its economy.

In a letter addressed to Blinken, US citizens and residents with family members detained in Saudi Arabia called for the immediate release of their relatives. The letter included names such as prominent cleric Salman al-Odah, children of former spy chief Saad al-Jabri, human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani, and aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.

US officials who briefed reporters prior to the trip acknowledged an ongoing conversation on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms with Saudi Arabia.

However, they did not reveal whether Blinken would seek specific guarantees from the Saudis on these issues.

The State Department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, stated in the readout of Blinken's meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed that the Secretary of State emphasized the importance of progress on human rights in strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

tg/msh (AFP, Reuters)