Antony Blinken, the United States Secretary of State, visits Saudi Arabia amid strained relations between Riyadh and Washington. This is his second trip to Saudi Arabia since assuming his role as America’s top diplomat. The visit by Blinken comes at a time when the Saudi kingdom, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has shown a growing willingness to assert its own decision-making autonomy, sometimes disregarding the preferences of the United States. Tensions between the two nations have arisen due to disagreements over various issues, including Saudi Arabia’s oil supply, its partnerships with Russia in OPEC+, and its diplomatic approach to Iran, facilitated by China. Additionally, President Joe Biden has criticized Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and vowed to hold the country accountable.
Despite these challenges, Saudi Arabia still relies on the United States, along with other Gulf Arab nations, as a security guarantor in the broader Middle East region. Both countries have cooperated in addressing issues such as the Iran nuclear program and seeking a lasting ceasefire in Sudan. Saudi Arabia also aims to end its involvement in the war in Yemen, a goal shared by the United States.
Experts Say US-Saudi Relationship Appears Strained but Stronger
According to Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, the US-Saudi relationship has strengthened, particularly in terms of security, compared to a year ago, despite appearing more strained on the surface. He believes that while there are superficial tensions, the overall bond between the two countries has improved.
Antony Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes at a time when the kingdom is showing an increased interest in international engagement. This was evident through its involvement in prisoner swaps related to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Saudi Arabia recently hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at an Arab League summit and immediately after, received Russia’s sanctioned interior minister.
Navigating Oil Prices and Security: US-Saudi Relationship Dynamics
Given the current oil prices, the Biden administration does not have immediate concerns about rising prices at the pump during the summer driving season. However, Washington may seek to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as its relations with China and Russia become more strained. However, the Saudis are likely seeking assurances that Biden cannot provide, particularly regarding arms sales to the kingdom, as Congress retains the power to halt such sales.
The impact of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to affect the relationship, with Ibish noting that Congress has not moved on from the issue, while the rest of the world has. When it comes to human rights, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim stated that human rights are a key aspect of the Biden administration’s engagement with countries worldwide. However, he declined to provide specific details.
During his visit, Blinken met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the State Department stated that they discussed their shared commitment to promoting stability, security, and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond. The statement also highlighted that the secretary emphasized the importance of progress on human rights in strengthening the bilateral relationship.
While a Saudi statement acknowledged the meeting, it did not provide any specific details.