By the time Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken wrapped up a visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, he and Saudi officials had discussed cooperation on a smorgasbord of issues: Iran, Sudan, the Islamic State, regional infrastructure, clean energy and the potential normalization of relations between Saudi Israel.
Mr Blinken made effusive comments about the work being done at a press conference in Riyadh: “It is critical to increasing opportunities and driving progress for our people and for people around the world.”
It was the kind of bonhomie that US officials usually reserve for close allies. Mr Blinken’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, including a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, is the Biden administration’s most obvious attempt yet to get past the animosity that President Biden uttered to the Prince. and his government last fall.
The blowout came after Saudi officials halted oil production, despite US officials’ perception that they had agreed to increase it. Mr Biden vowed to impose “consequences”. But in the months since, the president and his top aides have come to accept what they see as a harsh reality of the new geopolitical landscape, analysts and those familiar with the administration’s debates say: that Washington cannot afford powerful partners of to alienate itself if it intends to compete with China and Russia around the world.
And Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS, appears to be making clever use of his country’s position at the crossroads of superpower competition, the world’s energy markets and Middle East security. He and his aides have made it clear that they will not be forced to take sides in international power struggles, and that they are open to being courted by all sides and see benefits in maintaining strong ties with each of them .
Indeed, officials in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the Gulf say they reject the binary choice they believe has been placed on them by US and European officials since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in the context of growing competition between the US and China.
“China is our largest trading partner, so of course there is a lot of interaction and intersection with China,” Prince Faisal bin Farhansaid the Saudi Foreign Minister at the joint press conference with Mr Blinken. “That cooperation is only likely to increase as China’s economic impact in the region and beyond is likely to increase as the economy continues to grow. But we still have a robust security partnership with the US. That security partnership is renewed almost daily.”
“I’m not ascribing to this zero-sum game,” he added. “I think we are all capable of multiple partnerships and multiple commitments.”
Prince Mohammed has used diplomatic events this week – as well as his kingdom’s surprise multi-billion dollar investment in the PGA Tour – to demonstrate his growing power and influence on the global stage. Those steps are further evidence of his desire to juggle partnerships and hedge against Saudi Arabia’s historical dependence on the United States.
Just days before Mr. Blinken’s arrival, the Prince welcomed President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, regarded by the United States as an evil ruler, to Jeddah for an official visit. On Tuesday, Iran, a Saudi rival, reopened its embassy in Riyadh as a result of a deal between the two nations that helped China close in March. And next week, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Investment plans to host a large gathering of Arab and Chinese businessmen.
It is Prince Mohammed’s assertive building of ties with China in recent months that has contributed more to a mindset change within the Biden administration than anything else, people in Washington say of the discussions.
US officials watched closely as the prince gave Xi Jinping, China’s leader, a lavish reception last December, just weeks after Biden lashed out at the prince. And while Mr Biden’s aides welcomed the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic overtures that China helped orchestrate, they noted that the episode was a sign of China’s more muscular role in the region.
“Saudi Arabia and the United States are trying to manage the relationship’s transition into a new multipolar reality,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scientist at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“The relationship is now more like the way the US is relating to some European partners,” he added. “Security cooperation is essential and maintained by both sides, but the Saudis are flexing their muscles in an effort to become a significant regional and international player in a world where power is scattered and the US is fighting back. choose more carefully.”
Mr Blinken said on Thursday that “we are not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China,” and that he believed “the United States remains the No. 1 partner of choice for, I think, most countries in the region.”
In addition to aiming to ensure that Saudi Arabia maintains some distance from China and Russia, several top Biden administration officials have argued that it is important to strengthen ties with the kingdom for more traditional reasons: balancing against Iran, the fighting terrorist groups and selling US-made weapons. Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, two White House officials, are proponents of stronger ties and have recently made trips to the kingdom, as has National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
But Mr Biden has a lingering distrust of Prince Mohammed, with whom he reluctantly made a fist in Jeddah last July, and strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia goes against his favorite foreign policy formulation: an American-led struggle. to strengthen democracy. against autocracy.
Shortly after taking office, Mr Biden released a US intelligence report ruling that the prince ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post and resident of Virginia who was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. (Prince Mohammed has denied playing any role in what he described as a rogue operation.) Also in 2021, Mr Biden suspended sales of certain munitions to the kingdom after vowing to end US support for a Saudi-led coalition to end the catastrophic war in Yemen.
But his administration has since notified Congress of at least $4 billion in arms sales and military services to Saudi Arabia.
Proponents of tougher policies on Saudi Arabia say Biden is now taking a conventional approach.
“Human rights are not on the agenda anywhere other than this pared-down, watered-down version: We’re going to lobby to get Americans released from prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. She added that she saw little difference between Mr Biden’s actions and those of President Donald J. Trump, who sought to befriend Prince Mohammed. (Six months after leaving his White House job, Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, received a $2 billion investment from a Saudi fund led by the prince.)
“Look at the actual policies of the Biden administration, look at the actual relationship,” Ms. Whitson said. “It’s similar, if not much more humiliating. MBS has been beating President Biden for the past two years.”
Many US lawmakers, especially Democrats, have criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and are following the steps of the Biden administration. Some senior legislators intend to hold back sales of some weapons to the kingdom. Lawmakers are also monitoring what concessions Prince Mohammed is demanding from the United States in exchange for normalization with Israel, a move many Saudi citizens would oppose.
The prince has told US officials he wants security guarantees from the United States and more military cooperation, especially to deter Iran. His opening demand is for a mutual defense commitment as enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who met with Saudi officials last month.
And Prince Mohammed has asked Washington to help Saudi Arabia develop a civilian uranium-enriched nuclear program, a proposal fueling proliferation fears 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 cooperation goes both ways,” Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy said.
Biden aides have been trying to get Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prince Mohammed last month invited President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to speak at an Arab League summit, but the Arab countries have remained neutral. There are tensions in ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia over oil policy, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are major buyers of Russian oil due to the current reduced price.
In his juggling of superpowers, Mr Goldberg said, the prince is “pulling levers to get the White House’s attention”, and US officials are wondering “if he has a permanent policy of hedging or if he is playing hard to get “.