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Blinken says Saudis not asked to choose between US, China

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken struck a conciliatory tone in Riyadh
— Riyadh (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saudi Arabia was not being forced to choose between Washington and Beijing, striking a conciliatory tone in Riyadh following tensions with the long-time ally.

Blinken, appearing alongside his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan at the end of a three-day visit, denied that Saudi Arabia's warming ties with China were a problem for the United States.

He added that the United States supported the humanitarian goals that Prince Faisal said were behind lifting Syria's suspension from the Arab League, a move that was condemned by Washington.

"We've... been very clear we're not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China," Blinken told media after a meeting of the global coalition fighting the Islamic State group.

"We're simply trying to demonstrate the benefits of our partnership and the affirmative agenda that we bring."

China demonstrated its growing clout in the Middle East when it brokered a surprise rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, seven years after the heavyweights severed ties.

Riyadh's strengthening relations with Beijing follow recent tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US, its decades-old security guarantor, mainly over human rights and oil prices.

- Not 'zero-sum game' -

Washington is also seen as playing a reduced role in the region, where it has long acted as a protector to its allies including Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter.

But Prince Faisal said relations with the US and China were not a "zero-sum game" for Saudi Arabia.

"We are all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements and the US does the same in many instances," he said.

"So I'm not caught up in this really negative view of this. I think we can actually build a partnership that crosses these borders."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken  approaches to shake the hand of Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan during a joint press conference in Riyadh

As if to demonstrate these "multiple partnerships", de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman had a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, and also hosted Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro this week.

"Preserving the stability of the global energy market was discussed extensively," a Kremlin statement said, referring to the phone call.

- 'Sceptical of Assad' -

Blinken's trip comes at a time of quickly shifting alliances in the region triggered by the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which reopened its embassy in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia has also resumed ties with Syria, whose leader Bashar al-Assad last month attended his first Arab League summit since the start of Syria's 12-year civil war.

"Regardless of what one thinks about Bashar al-Assad, we took the only pathway to resolving the humanitarian challenges that we face in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis," Prince Faisal said.

Blinken said the US did not agree with lifting Syria's Arab League suspension, but was aligned with the goals of working towards a peace process, stopping the re-emergence of IS, allowing access to humanitarian aid and stopping the captagon trade.

"I have to admit we are sceptical of Assad's willingness to take the necessary steps, but we're aligned with our partners here on what those steps are, and on the ultimate targets," he said.

Blinken met Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers on Tuesday

Earlier, the US pledged $148 million for stabilisation efforts in Iraq and Syria and joined Saudi Arabia in urging Western states to repatriate foreign IS fighters and their relatives.

The ministerial meeting of the international coalition against IS aimed at raising $601 million for a stabilisation fund, with $300 million pledged so far, a statement said.

At the start of Thursday's session, Prince Faisal said it was "disheartening and absolutely unacceptable" that some wealthy countries had not repatriated citizens who had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS.

"To those countries, you must step up, you must take your responsibility," he said, in comments echoed by Blinken.

The "caliphate", which IS proclaimed across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, was declared defeated in 2019 following counter-offensives in both Iraq and Syria.

Thousands of jihadists and their family members continue to be held in detention centres and informal camps where US commanders have warned they could fuel an IS revival.

Despite repeated calls for their repatriation, foreign governments have allowed only a trickle to return home, fearing security threats and domestic political backlash.