Blinken visits Saudi Arabia amid strained ties, Israel normalization in mind

Humeyra Pamuk

Reuters  /  June 7, 2023

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on a mission to steady Washington’s relationship with Riyadh after years of deepening disagreements on issues ranging from Iran and regional security to oil prices.

Blinken met with the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, and they “discussed deepening economic cooperation, especially in the clean energy and technology fields”, according to a State Department readout.

Blinken was also set to meet other top Saudi officials during his time in Riyadh, the capital, and the coastal city of Jeddah, in what will be Washington’s second recent high-level visit.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia on May 7.

The top U.S. diplomat’s June 6-8 visit to the world’s largest oil exporter comes days after Riyadh pledged to further cut oil production, a move likely to add tension to a U.S.-Saudi relationship already strained by the kingdom’s human rights record and disputes over America’s Iran policy.

The aims of the trip include regaining influence with Riyadh over oil prices, fending off Chinese and Russian influence in the region and nurturing hopes for an eventual normalization of Saudi-Israeli ties.

Speaking at the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Blinken said Washington had “a real national security interest” in advocating for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but cautioned that it will 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 said.


U.S.-Saudi ties got off to a rocky start in 2019 when President Joe Biden during his campaign said he would treat Riyadh like “the pariah that they are” if he was elected, and soon after taking office in 2021, released a U.S. intelligence assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed approved the operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

A visit by Biden in July 2022 to the kingdom did little to ease tensions, and increasingly, Riyadh has looked to reassert its regional clout, while growing less interested in being aligned with U.S. priorities in the region.

The most recent example was when MbS gave a warm embrace to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at an Arab League summit in May, which saw Arab states readmit Syria after a decade of suspension, a move Washington said it neither supported nor encouraged.

The kingdom has been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into transforming and opening its economy to reduce dependence on crude oil. The reforms have been accompanied by a raft of arrests of critics of MbS, as well as of businessmen, clerics and rights activists.

U.S. citizens and residents with family members detained in Saudi Arabia called on Blinken in a letter on Tuesday to press Saudi officials for an immediate release of their relatives. The list included 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.

The kingdom had released detained U.S. citizens from its prisons but some still remain under a travel ban.

U.S. officials briefing reporters on the trip last week said there was an “ongoing conversation regarding the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms” with Saudi Arabia but they declined to say if Blinken would seek any guarantees from the Saudis on the issue.

Blinken “emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in the readout of his meeting with MbS.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Simon Lewis, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Costas Pitas; Editing by Leslie Adler, Sharon Singleton, Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle


 Saudi crown prince, Blinken had ‘candid’ talks in Jeddah – US official

Humeyra Pamuk & Aziz al-Yaakoubi

Reuters  /  June 7, 2023

The top U.S. diplomat arrived in Saudi Arabia late on Tuesday for a much anticipated visit amid frayed ties due to deepening disagreements on everything from Iran policy to regional security issues, oil prices and human rights.

Washington has struggled to steady the relationship with Riyadh, where the de facto ruler Prince Mohammed has dominated the decision-making, and as the traditional oil-for-security alliance crumbled under the emergence of the United States as a major oil producer.

Antony Blinken’s visit came days after top crude exporter Saudi Arabia pledged to deepen oil output cuts on top of a broader OPEC+ deal to limit supply, as it seeks to boost flagging oil prices despite opposition from the U.S. administration.

Blinken and the crown prince, known as MbS, met for an hour and forty minutes, a U.S. official said, covering topics including Israel, the conflict in Yemen, unrest in Sudan as well as human rights.

“There was a good degree of convergence on potential initiatives where we share the same interests, while also recognizing where we have differences,” the U.S. official said.

A good part of the discussion was expected to be dominated by the possible normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, even though officials had played down the likelihood of any immediate or major progress on the issue.

“They discussed the potential for normalization of relations with Israel and agreed to continued dialogue on the issue,” the U.S. official said, without providing further details.

Saudi Arabia, a Middle East powerhouse and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines, gave its blessing to Gulf neighbours United Arab Emirates and Bahrain establishing relations with Israel in 2020 under the previous U.S. administration of Donald Trump.

Riyadh has not followed suit, saying Palestinian statehood goals should be addressed first. In April, Saudi Arabia restored ties with Iran, a regional rival and Israel’s arch-foe.


Developing a civilian nuclear program is among Riyadh’s conditions for normalizing ties with Israel, a source familiar with the discussions said, confirming a New York Times report from March. Saudi or U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed that.

However U.S. officials have said in the past they would share nuclear power technology only if the agreement prevents enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of plutonium made in reactors – two routes to making nuclear weapons.

Riyadh has also leveraged its growing relationship with China as Washington pushed back against some of its demands including lifting restrictions on arms sales and help with sensitive high-tech industries.

Two days after Blinken’s visit, Riyadh will host a major Arab-Chinese investment conference.

Jonathan Fulton, non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council, said China would help the Saudis in sectors where the U.S. won’t but the relationship between Riyadh and Beijing did not have the same depth as with Washington.

“At this point I’d still characterize the U.S.-Saudi relationship as strategic and the China-Saudi relationship as transactional,” Fulton said.

Hours before departing for Saudi Arabia, at a speech in Washington, Blinken said the United States had a “real national security interest” in advocating for normalizing Saudi-Israeli ties but cautioned about the time frame.

“We have no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily,” Blinken said.

MbS and Blinken also discussed Yemen and potential ways to resolve remaining issues, while Blinken thanked the crown prince for the kingdom’s role in pushing for a ceasefire in Sudan and helping evacuate U.S. citizens.

Blinken also raised human rights issues with MbS, the U.S. official said, both on a broad level and relating to specific cases, although did not say which cases.

The kingdom has been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into transforming and opening its economy to reduce dependence on crude oil. The reforms have been accompanied by a raft of arrests of critics of MbS, as well as of businessmen, clerics and rights activists.

Most recently in March, Saudi authorities released a U.S. citizen jailed for 19 years for posting criticism of the government on Twitter but he has remained banned from travelling.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Aziz El Yaakoubi and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mark Potter