JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken engaged in an open and candid conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the early hours of Wednesday. The discussions covered a wide range of bilateral issues, according to a U.S. official.
Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes at a crucial time, as tensions have strained the relationship between the two countries due to disagreements on various matters such as Iran policy, regional security concerns, oil prices, and human rights.
The United States has faced challenges in stabilizing its ties with Riyadh, where Prince Mohammed wields significant decision-making power. Furthermore, the traditional oil-for-security alliance has weakened as the United States emerges as a major oil producer.
Blinken’s arrival follows Saudi Arabia’s recent commitment to deepen oil output cuts, defying opposition from the U.S. administration, in an effort to bolster oil prices. The meeting between Blinken and Crown Prince Mohammed, also known as MbS, lasted for approximately one hour and forty minutes. They discussed topics including Israel, the conflict in Yemen, unrest in Sudan, as well as human rights issues.
The U.S. official stated, “There was a good degree of convergence on potential initiatives where we share the same interests, while also recognizing where we have differences.” The potential normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel was expected to be a major focus of the discussion, although officials downplayed the likelihood of immediate progress on the issue.
Regarding the normalization of relations with Israel, the U.S. official confirmed that the topic was discussed, stating, “They discussed the potential for normalization of relations with Israel and agreed to continued dialogue on the issue.” However, no further details were provided.
In a speech prior to his departure for Jeddah, Blinken emphasized that any breakthrough on the issue would not be swift. He stated, “We have no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily.”
While neighboring countries Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates established relations with Israel in 2020 under the previous U.S. administration, Saudi Arabia has not followed suit. Riyadh has maintained that the attainment of Palestinian statehood goals should take precedence. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia restored ties with Iran, a regional rival and Israel’s adversary, in April.
The development of a civilian nuclear program is one of Riyadh’s conditions for normalizing ties with Israel, as reported by The New York Times in March, based on a source familiar with the discussions. However, Saudi or U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed this.
In the past, U.S. officials have stated that they would only share nuclear power technology if an agreement prevents uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, both of which are pathways to nuclear weapons development.
Riyadh has sought to leverage its growing relationship with China as it faces resistance from Washington on certain demands, including the lifting of restrictions on arms sales and assistance with sensitive high-tech industries.
Following Blinken’s visit, Saudi Arabia will host a significant Arab-Chinese investment conference. While China may offer support to the Saudis in sectors where the United States does not, the depth of the relationship between Riyadh and Beijing is not comparable to that of Riyadh and Washington, according to Jonathan Fulton, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Addressing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers, Blinken provided reassurance of Washington’s continued focus in the region. He stated, “The United States is in this region to stay, and we remain deeply invested in partnering with all of you.”
During the discussions, Crown Prince Mohammed and Blinken also explored potential solutions to the remaining issues in Yemen. Blinken expressed gratitude to the crown prince for the kingdom’s efforts in advocating for a ceasefire in Sudan and aiding in the evacuation of U.S. citizens.
Human rights concerns were also raised by Blinken with MbS, though specific cases were not mentioned, as per the U.S. official. Saudi Arabia has been undertaking substantial economic reforms, investing billions of dollars to diversify its economy and reduce reliance on crude oil. However, these reforms have been accompanied by arrests of government critics, businessmen, clerics, and human rights activists.
Notably, in March, Saudi authorities released a U.S. citizen who had been imprisoned for 19 years for posting criticism of the government on Twitter. However, the individual remains prohibited from traveling.