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Blinken meets with Saudi Arabia's MBS, US cites 'convergence' on issues

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Al-Monitor that he and the crown prince discussed "a lot" during their meeting.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on June 6, 2023

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman early Wednesday, hours after arriving in Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi officials on security and economic cooperation. 

MBS, as the prince is known, met with Blinken just after midnight at the Al Salam Royal Palace in the coastal city of Jeddah. Blinken told Al-Monitor after leaving the meeting that the pair discussed "a lot," but he did not elaborate.

A US official later described their meeting as "an open, candid discussion that covered the full range of regional and bilateral issues."

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

Among those in attendance for the hour-and-40-minute meeting were Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and State Department Counselor Derek Chollet. On the Saudi side were Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Princess Reema bint Bandar. 

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Blinken and MBS discussed their “shared commitment to advance stability, security and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond,” including in Yemen. 

“The secretary also emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” Miller said, adding that they also discussed "deepening economic cooperation, especially in the clean energy and technology fields."

Blinken, who accompanied President Joe Biden to Jeddah last July, is making his first solo trip to the Gulf country since becoming secretary of state nearly 2½ years ago. His meeting with MBS comes as the relationship has seen improvement but remains strained over a number of issues, including the supply of oil, Saudi Arabia’s warmer relations with Russia and China, and US support for reviving a nuclear deal with Iran. 

Saudi-US ties have evolved since Biden as a candidate vowed to shun the kingdom over its human rights record and the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden avoided direct communication with the young prince during the early days of his presidency, but faced pressure to make amends with the Gulf monarchy as the United States sought to isolate Iran and lower gasoline prices that surged in the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The administration has also sought Riyadh’s cooperation to end the war in Yemen, and more recently, reach a permanent cease-fire in Sudan.

Aaron David Miller, former Middle East negotiator for the State Department who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says gone are the days of Biden referring to Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" kingdom. 

“The US-Saudi relationship in the eyes of the administration is too big, too important and too central to fail,” Miller said. “As a consequence of that, you are now looking for ways not to constrain Saudi behavior so much as to pursue much closer relations with the Saudis.”

From Jeddah, Blinken will travel Wednesday to the Saudi capital of Riyadh where he and Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud will co-host a meeting of the global coalition of countries fighting the Islamic State. Blinken will also meet with counterparts from the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

One of Blinken’s priorities this week will be pushing for Saudi Arabia to join the group of Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords. A diplomatic breakthrough, however, is complicated by the right-wing Israeli government’s policy toward the Palestinians, and Saudi demands from the United States, which reportedly include more arms sales and support for its civilian nuclear program. 

During their meeting, MBS and Blinken "discussed the potential for normalization of relations with Israel and agreed to continued dialogue on the issue," the US official said. 

Blinken’s trip is the latest in a series of visits to Saudi Arabia by senior US officials, most recently national security adviser Jake Sullivan in early May. 

Helping drive the recent push for dialogue is Saudi Arabia’s pivot toward China, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense Democracies. In a deal brokered by Beijing, Riyadh and Tehran agreed in March to restore formal diplomatic relations severed seven years earlier. 

“The kingdom is in a pretty open hedge against the United States,” Goldberg said. “There's obviously been a renewed effort to try to warm relations, but this is going to take more than just a trip from the national security adviser and a trip from the secretary of state.” 

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