Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022.
WASHINGTON--With two high-level visits in less than a month, the United States is hoping to steady ties with Saudi Arabia after several years of disagreement and deepening mistrust. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive for meetings with officials of the world's largest oil exporter this week, the State Department said, following a May 7 visit by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Although no breakthroughs are expected, analysts said the aims of the trip include to regain some sway with Riyadh over oil prices, to fend off Chinese and Russian influence, and to nurture hopes for an eventual Saudi-Israeli normalization.
In a brief statement, the State Department said Blinken would visit Tuesday to Thursday to discuss economic and security cooperation as well as for a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council meeting and a conference on combating Islamic State militants. He will contend with a U.S.-Saudi relationship battered by disputes over Iran and journalist Jamal Khashoggi's 2018 murder and weakened by the fading of an oil-for-security bargain that has united the countries for decades. President Joe Biden got off to a rocky start with Riyadh after saying in 2019 that he would treat it like "the pariah that they are" and, soon after taking office in 2021, releasing a U.S. intelligence assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement by the crown prince. Despite a visit by Biden to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 that was intended to improve ties, Riyadh angered Washington just three months later when the OPEC+ group, which includes Russia, cut oil production ahead of U.S. midterm elections in which gas prices were an issue. The difficulties predate the Biden administration.
Saudi leaders were unhappy about the U.S. negotiation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Gulf nations believed left them vulnerable to the possibility Tehran would eventually acquire nuclear arms. Iran denies any such ambition. And while then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the pact in 2018, Riyadh was angry at his failure to retaliate against Iran after a 2019 drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities. Washington and Riyadh blamed the attacks on Tehran, which denied responsibility. "They (the Saudis) wanted to see rubble bounce in Tehran after Abqaiq," said David Des Roches of the U.S. National Defense University, saying Riyadh had expected Trump to respond by ordering air strikes. Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment. Two long-term shifts add to the challenges facing Blinken. First, the long-standing pillar of U.S.-Saudi relations, the U.S. provision of security in return for steady supplies of Saudi oil, has withered. The United States - now the world's top oil producer - is no longer as dependent on Saudi crude as it was in the 1970s. "Both sides of the equation - preferred access to Saudi energy and U.S. defense of Saudi Arabia against foreign challenges - seem to be gone," said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Second, the rise of China, now the biggest buyer of Saudi oil and largest source of Saudi imports, as well as the so-called U.S. "pivot" to Asia, have led Riyadh to hedge its geopolitical bets. "In the Cold War, the U.S. could pretty much count on the Saudis to back its big strategic initiatives. When the Cold War ended, the Saudis didn't have much choice," said Texas A & M Professor Gregory Gause.
"Now they have choices," he added. "The period of American unipolarity is basically over and the Saudis understand that and they are seeing other options." In one sign of evolving allegiances, Saudi Arabia and Iran said in March they planned to reestablish diplomatic relations after undisclosed talks in Beijing. One aim of Blinken's trip is to reinforce that "the United States is a strong player that is in the region to stay ... that we won't leave a vacuum for other competitors to fill," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Benaim told reporters. However strained, a true rupture in ties is unlikely because Riyadh needs the U.S. military to ensure the flow of oil from the Gulf - a role neither China nor Russia, which has expanded its influence in the region, seem prepared to play - and Washington wants Riyadh to moderate world oil prices. Still, the U.S. is unlikely to achieve one goal any time soon: convincing Riyadh to follow the 2020 move by Arab nations including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords. On Wednesday, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, dismissed as "hyperventilation" reports in the Israeli press about the possibility. She said the Saudi crown prince had other priorities - notably his Vision 2030 plan to modernize Saudi Arabia's economy and reduce its dependence on oil - and said smaller steps like sports exchanges could improve ties with Israel.
"That's going to be the hard one," said a Gulf official on condition of anonymity, suggesting normalization was unlikely while Saudi King Salman was alive and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in power.