US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for a trip on which he plans to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid strained relations between Riyadh and Washington.

Blinken’s trip, his second to Saudi Arabia since becoming America’s top diplomat, comes after the kingdom under Prince Mohammed was more willing to ignore the United States in making its own decisions. Riyadh has repeatedly clashed with President Joe Biden over its supply of crude oil to world markets, its willingness to partner with Russia in OPEC+ and to achieve a detente with Iran under the mediation of China. Biden also pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

However, Saudi Arabia still relies – like other Gulf Arab countries – on the United States to be the guarantor of security in the wider Middle East, as tensions over Iran’s nuclear program in recent years have turned in a series of attacks. Riyadh and Washington have also worked in tandem to try to hammer out a lasting ceasefire in Sudan, which has been elusive during weeks of fighting between that country’s army and a rival paramilitary force. And Saudi Arabia wants to end its war in Yemen, which the United States also wants

“Under the hood, especially on security and a few other things like that, the relationship is stronger than it was a year ago,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident fellow at the ‘Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “He seems more tense – and in some superficial ways he is – but he’s stronger overall.”

Blinken arrived in a Saudi Arabia more eager to engage on the international stage, particularly after being involved in prisoner swaps in Moscow’s war against Ukraine. The kingdom hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at an Arab League summit last month and then the Russian-sanctioned interior minister immediately after.

With oil prices well below $100 a barrel, the Biden administration has no immediate concerns about pump prices during the summer driving season. Washington is likely hoping to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as it warms to China and Russia. However, the Saudis likely want guarantees that Biden cannot provide when it comes to Congress stopping arms sales to the kingdom, Ibish said.

“Khashoggi still haunts the halls of Congress. I don’t think it’s over in Washington,” Ibish said. “The rest of the world has moved on, but I don’t think Congress has moved on.”

Asked if Blinken raised human rights issues, including Khashoggi’s death, Deputy Undersecretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim told reporters last week that “human rights rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region.” Benaim declined to discuss specifics.

“I think what you will see on this trip is a vision of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that is both rooted in our historic pillars of cooperation in areas such as defense and security and counterterrorism, includes significant regional diplomacy underway with respect to Yemen and Sudan, and seek 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 after Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan visited Jeddah in May and met with Prince Mohammed. The prince also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a longtime enemy of America, for a meeting on Monday evening, Saudi state television reported.

In addition to meeting Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials, Blinken will also attend an anti-Islamic State summit meeting in Riyadh, as well as a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers. The six GCC nations include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Deeper diplomatic engagement by the United States is likely to produce better long-term results than simply washing our hands and withdrawing from the region,” wrote Brian Katulis, vice president of Middle East policy. Institute based in Washington.

However, the challenges are many.

The war in Yemen continues despite prisoner swaps and efforts to end the conflict. Meanwhile, both parties likely have desires that won’t be met. Saudi Arabia has increasingly pushed for nuclear cooperation that includes America allowing it to enrich uranium in the kingdom – which worries non-proliferation experts as spinning centrifuges open the door to a possible armament program. Prince Mohammed said the kingdom would pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran had one.

Blinken told a meeting of the U.S. Israel Public Affairs Committee Monday night that the Biden administration continues to believe “that diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively, and sustainably prevent Iran from acquiring of a nuclear weapon”. However, he added: “All options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Blinken first visited Saudi Arabia as America’s top diplomat last year as part of Biden’s trip there. This trip saw Biden fly directly from Israel to the kingdom. Just before that, Saudi Arabia granted overflight rights to Israeli airlines flying to Asia – a major measure saving them both flight time and kerosene.

Diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia, however, seems unlikely at this time, although neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates will recognize Israel in 2020. Saudi Arabia under King Salman has repeatedly called on Israel to allow Palestinians to create a state in the occupied West. Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now oversees the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history, making a such a decision highly unlikely given the violence and heightened tensions in that country.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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