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Blinken heads to Saudi Arabia with Israel ties on agenda

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s much-anticipated visit to the kingdom comes after years of strain over the price of oil and human rights.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for a three-day trip focused on security and economic cooperation as the Biden administration seeks to patch up relations with Riyadh, blunt China’s rising influence and boost Arab recognition of Israel. 

High on the agenda for Blinken’s June 6-8 visit will be Saudi Arabia's potential normalization with Israel. The administration has sought to build on its predecessor’s Abraham Accords, which saw the Jewish state in 2020 establish relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.   

“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said Monday in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington. "We believe we can and indeed we must play an integral role in advancing it." 

The State Department said Blinken will also discuss with Saudi counterparts the opportunities for regional de-escalation, including in Sudan. The administration credits Saudi Arabia with helping to evacuate stranded American citizens and hosting talks between the warring Sudanese generals. 

US officials also need Saudi Arabia’s cooperation to end the war in Yemen, where a shaky truce reached last year between the Saudi-backed government and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has largely halted the fighting that’s killed more than 150,000 people since 2014. 

“What you’ll see on this trip is a vision of the US-Saudi relationship that’s both rooted in our historic mainstays of cooperation in areas like defense and security and counterterrorism," US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim told reporters on Friday. 

On Thursday, Blinken and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, will co-host a ministerial-level meeting of the global coalition against the Islamic State. Blinken will also participate in a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s foreign ministers while he’s in the Saudi capital. 

Blinken is also expected to meet with the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a US official said.

His visit comes nearly a year after President Joe Biden's highly scrutinized fist bump with the crown prince in Jeddah. The July 2022 trip represented a reversal for the administration away from Biden’s campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia like a global “pariah” and toward a proactive engagement with the world’s largest oil exporter. 

Senior US officials aides Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein have since made several trips to the kingdom, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan traveled there on May 7 in a visit partly aimed at securing Saudi-Israel normalization. 

The Biden administration has played down expectations of an imminent breakthrough but points to incremental progress between the two countries. A pending deal would permit Israel’s Muslim citizens to take direct flights to the Saudi city of Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage. 

Saudi Arabia’s asking price for full normalization with Israel reportedly includes security guarantees from the United States, increased arms sales and support for a civilian nuclear power program that would include uranium enrichment.  

“The Saudis obviously want something from the United States that will be of strategic and economic benefit to them,” said David Schenker, a senior State Department official for the Middle East during the Trump administration who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“But they want certain things from the United States that the president can't actually commit to because these all require congressional support,” Schenker said. 

Closer defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia would be a tough sell in Congress, where relations soured after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Bin Salman's sweeping crackdown. The State Department’s Benaim declined to say Friday whether Blinken would seek any specific rights commitments from Saudi officials during his trip, saying only that “human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region.”

Blinken will arrive in Saudi Arabia at a time when the region’s heavyweight is drawing closer to China — its largest trading partner and biggest purchaser of Saudi oil — as a hedge against the waning US role in the region. 

In a sign of the shifting regional power dynamics, rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a Beijing-brokered deal in March to restore ties after seven years. Riyadh is also in talks to join the so-called BRICS bloc of developing economies that currently consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.  

The Biden administration has downplayed concerns about China’s expanding influence in the Gulf but is taking steps to shore up its own ties with Saudi Arabia, which it views as an important regional counterweight to Iran. 

“Most administrations conclude that Saudi Arabia is a necessary partner,” said Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are any number of issues in the Middle East that are much easier if the Saudis are pulling with you and almost impossible if the Saudis are pushing against you.”

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