Blinken starts Saudi Arabia visit aimed at steadying relations

US Secretary of State says relations between Washington and Riyadh are ‘strengthened by progress on human rights’.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 7, 2023. Amer Hilabi/Pool via REUTERS
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 7, 2023 [Amer Hilabi/pool via Reuters]

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held talks with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the start of a diplomatic mission aimed at steadying relations between Washington and the oil-rich kingdom after years of deepening disagreements on issues ranging from human rights to Iran and regional security to oil prices.

Blinken spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday and the two committed to “advance stability, security, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond”, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement after the meeting. The commitment included working towards achieving peace in Yemen, Miller said.

Blinken also emphasised that bilateral relations between Washington and Riyadh were “strengthened by progress on human rights”, and thanked Saudi Arabia for its support during the recent evacuation of US citizens from war-torn Sudan as well as for diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting between rival Sudanese factions.

In what is Washington’s second recent high-level trip to the kingdom, Blinken is set to meet other top Saudi officials during his three-day visit. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan travelled to Saudi Arabia on May 7.

Blinken’s visit comes just days after Saudi Arabia pledged to further cut oil production, a move likely to add tension to the relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

Riyadh has clashed repeatedly with US President Joe Biden on its supply of crude oil to global markets, its willingness to partner with Russia in OPEC+ and its reaching a detente with Iran mediated by China. The aims of Blinken’s trip, analysts say, include regaining influence with Riyadh over oil prices, fending off Chinese and Russian influence in the region and nurturing hopes for an eventual normalisation of Saudi Arabian-Israeli ties.

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington, DC-based think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that discouraging a closer Saudi Arabian-Chinese relationship is probably the most important element of Blinken’s visit.

“[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 said.

US ties with Saudi Arabia got off to a rocky start in 2019 when Biden, during his presidential campaign, said he would treat Riyadh like “the pariah that they are” if he was elected. Soon after taking office in 2021, Biden released a US intelligence assessment that the Crown Prince approved the operation to capture and kill journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Biden’s visit to the kingdom in July 2022 did little to ease tensions and Riyadh has grown less interested in being aligned with US priorities in the region.

But Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, said that relations between Washington and Riyadh were improving.

“It looks more strained – and in some superficial ways it is – but it is overall stronger,” Ibish said.

“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.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies