U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman early Wednesday during his second trip to Saudi Arabia as America’s top diplomat.
Blinken arrived in the kingdom Tuesday amid strained relations between Riyadh and Washington, D.C. as Prince Mohammed has clashed with the Biden administration over its supply of crude oil to global markets, its willingness to partner with Russia in OPEC+ and its China-mediated détente reached with Iran.
Tensions also are still present following President Biden’s pledge to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” following the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite conflict, a relationship remains due to Saudi Arabia’s reliance on America as a security guarantor for the wider Middle East in response to Iran’s nuclear program, and shared common interests in striking a lasting cease-fire in Sudan and ending the kingdom’s war in Yemen, according to The Associated Press.
“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.”
In Blinken’s meeting with Prince Mohammed early Wednesday, the countries discussed their “shared commitment to advance stability, security, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond,” according to the State Department.
“The secretary also emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” a statement added.
A statement from Saudi Arabia acknowledged the meeting, but further details were not included, The AP reported.
Since oil prices are well below $100 a barrel, it’s unlikely that discussions included immediate concerns over gas prices.
It is possible Washington will try to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as it gets warmer with China and Russia, but, in return, the Saudis will likely want guarantees that Biden can’t provide when it comes to Congress stopping arms sales to the kingdom, Ibish said.
When asked about the possibility of Blinken bringing up human rights issues, including Khashoggi’s death, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim declined to discuss specifics, but told journalists last week that “human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region.”
“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’s visit comes nearly a month after Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Jeddah to meet with Prince Mohammed, which kicked off a list of international meetings for the prince.
Within the past month, the kingdom has hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russia’s sanctioned interior minister Vladimir Kolokotsev. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro also met with Prince Mohammed on Monday, according to Saudi state television.
During the visit, Blinken is also scheduled to attend an anti-Islamic State meeting in Riyadh and a meeting with foreign ministers from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.