Secretary of State Anthony J. By the time Blinken visited Saudi Arabia on Thursday, he and Saudi officials discussed cooperation on a smorgasbord of issues: Iran, Sudan, Islamic State, regional infrastructure, clean energy and a potential normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations.
Mr. Blinken offered upbeat remarks about the work being done at a news conference in Riyadh: “It’s critical to expanding opportunity and driving progress for our people and people around the world.”
It’s the kind of bonhomie American officials usually reserve for close allies. Mr. Blinken’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which included a meeting with the nation’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is yet another apparent attempt by the Biden administration to move past President Biden’s expressed hostility toward the prince. And his government last fall.
The explosion came despite a perception by US officials that Saudi officials had agreed to increase oil production after they cut it. Mr Biden vowed to impose “consequences”. But in the months since, the president and his top aides have come to accept the harsh reality of the new geopolitical landscape, analysts and people familiar with the discussions among US officials say: Washington cannot afford to alienate powerful partners. It intends to compete with China and Russia around the world.
Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS, at the same time seems to be repressing his country’s place in the nexus of superpower competition, world energy markets and Middle East security. He and his aides have made it clear that they will not be forced to choose sides in international power struggles, and that they are open to being attracted to all parties and see benefits in maintaining strong ties with each.
Indeed, officials in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states say they reject the binary choice presented to them by American and European officials amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing US-China competition.
“China is our largest trading partner, so naturally there is a lot of interaction and intersection with China.” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, said at a joint news conference with Mr. Blinken. “That cooperation is likely to grow because China’s economic influence in the region and beyond is likely to grow as its economy grows. But we still have a robust security partnership with the US, a security partnership that is refreshed almost daily.
“I don’t blame this zero-sum game,” he added. “I think we’re all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements.”
Prince Mohammed has used diplomatic events this week — as well as his kingdom’s surprise multibillion-dollar investment in the PGA Tour — to demonstrate his growing power and influence on the world stage. Those moves are further evidence of Saudi Arabia’s desire to build partnerships and hedge against the United States’ historic dependence on them.
Just days before Mr. Blinken’s arrival, the United States welcomed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom it considers a bad ruler, to Jeddah for an official visit. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh as a result of a deal between the two nations that China helped arrange in March. And next week, Saudi Arabia’s investment ministry plans to host an important meeting of Arab and Chinese businessmen.
Prince Mohammed’s steady build-up of ties with China in recent months has done more than anything to change attitudes within the Biden administration, people briefed on the discussions told U.S. officials.
US officials watched keenly as the prince gave a lavish welcome to Chinese leader Xi Jinping in December, just weeks after Mr Biden lashed out at the prince. And Mr. While Biden’s aides welcomed the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic rapprochement, which China helped orchestrate, they noted that the episode signaled China’s more muscular role in the region.
“Saudi Arabia and the United States are trying to manage the transition of the relationship in a new multipolar reality,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“The relationship now looks like the way the U.S. relates to some of its European partners,” he said. “Security cooperation is important and maintained by both sides, but the Saudis are flexing their muscles in an effort to become a regional and international actor of importance in a world where power is dispersed and the US chooses its battles more carefully.”
Mr. Blinken said Thursday that “we’re not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China,” and he added that “I think the United States remains the No. 1 partner of choice, for most countries in the region.”
With the goal of ensuring Saudi Arabia maintains some distance from China and Russia, several top Biden administration officials have argued that strengthening ties with the kingdom is important for more traditional reasons: balancing against Iran, fighting terrorist groups and selling U.S.-made weapons. Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, two White House officials who advocate strong ties, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have made recent trips to the state.
But Mr. Biden has a lingering distrust of Prince Mohammed, with whom he had a reluctant fist bump in Jeddah last July, and strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia runs counter to his favorite framework for foreign policy: an American-led fight to strengthen democracy. Against tyranny.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden released a U.S. intelligence report that concluded the prince ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post and Virginia resident, who was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. (Prince Mohammed denied any role in what he described as a rogue operation.) Also in 2021, Mr. Biden suspended some munitions sales to the kingdom after vowing to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in the disastrous Yemen war.
But since then, his administration has notified Congress of at least $4 billion in arms sales and military services to Saudi Arabia.
Advocates of hardline policies in Saudi Arabia say Mr. Biden is now taking a more traditional approach.
“Human rights are nowhere on the agenda except in this watered-down, dumbed-down version: We’re going to lobby to release Americans from prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for Arab World Now. President Donald J. Biden’s actions and efforts to befriend Prince Mohammed He said he saw little difference between Trump’s actions. (Six months after leaving his White House job, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, received a $2 billion investment from a Saudi fund led by the prince.)
“Look at the real policy of the Biden administration, look at the real relationship,” Ms. Whitson said. “It’s similar, if not more insulting. MBS has beaten President Biden for the past two years.
Many US lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and are watching the Biden administration’s moves. Some senior legislators intend to put a hold on the sale of some arms to the state. Lawmakers are tracking what concessions Prince Mohammed is seeking from the United States in return for normalization with Israel, a move many Saudi citizens oppose.
The prince told US officials he wanted security guarantees and more military cooperation from the United States, mainly to deter Iran. Their initial demand is a mutual defense commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who met with Saudi officials last month.
And Prince Mohammed has asked Washington to help Saudi Arabia develop a civilian nuclear program with enriched uranium, raising fears of proliferation among some US officials and arms control experts.
“Before we even think about expanding our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom needs to prove to us that they understand that our partnership goes both ways,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said.
Biden aides have tried to get Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prince Mohammed invited Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak at an Arab League summit last month, but Arab countries have remained neutral. There are tensions in Saudi-Russia relations over oil policy, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are big buyers of Russian oil due to its current discount price.
In the manipulation of his superpowers, Mr. Goldberg said the prince is “pulling levers to get the White House’s attention” and that American officials are “confused whether he’s on a permanent policy of hedging or whether he’s playing hard to get.”