Tuesday, June 06, 2023
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Saudi Arabia on a mission to address the strained relationship between Washington and Riyadh, which has been marred by disagreements on various issues, including Iran, regional security, and oil prices.
During his visit to the capital, Riyadh, and the coastal city of Jeddah, Blinken is expected to meet with top Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. This visit follows a previous high-level visit by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on May 7.
The timing of Blinken's trip to the world's largest oil exporter coincides with Riyadh's recent commitment to further reduce oil production, potentially adding more tension to the already strained US-Saudi relationship, influenced by concerns over human rights records and differences in Iran policy. The objectives of the visit include regaining influence over oil prices, countering Chinese and Russian influence in the region, and nurturing hopes for the eventual normalisation of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Blinken emphasised the US's national security interest in advocating for diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, he cautioned that such normalisation would not occur quickly. One of the key elements of Blinken's visit is discouraging closer ties between Saudi Arabia and China, as noted by Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The US-Saudi relationship encountered difficulties in 2019 when President Joe Biden, during his campaign, expressed a strong stance towards Riyadh. Biden's release of a US intelligence assessment in 2021, which implicated Crown Prince Mohammed in the operation against journalist Jamal Khashoggi, further strained the ties. Biden's visit to the kingdom in July 2022 did little to alleviate tensions, as Riyadh sought to assert its regional influence while becoming less aligned with US priorities in the region.
Blinken's visit also takes place against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia's economic transformation initiatives and efforts to reduce its dependence on crude oil. These reforms have been accompanied by the arrest of critics, including clerics, businessmen, and human rights activists. US citizens and residents with detained family members in Saudi Arabia have urged Blinken to press for their immediate release. While some US citizens have been released from Saudi prisons, others remain under a travel ban.
US officials have acknowledged an ongoing conversation on human rights and fundamental freedoms with Saudi Arabia, but it remains unclear whether Blinken will seek specific guarantees from the Saudis on these issues. The visit represents a significant diplomatic effort to address the challenges and complexities in the US-Saudi relationship, fostering dialogue and exploring opportunities for cooperation in the region.