The top US diplomat is traveling to Saudi Arabia next week to meet with Saudi officials, the State Department said Friday, as the two countries continue to work on improving bilateral ties.
“Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Saudi Arabia June 6-8 to meet with Saudi officials to discuss US-Saudi strategic cooperation on regional and global issues and a range of bilateral issues including economic and security cooperation,” State Department Spokesman Matt Miller said.
Blinken will also participate in a US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Ministerial to discuss the growing cooperation with Gulf partners to promote security, stability, de-escalation, regional integration, and economic opportunities across the Middle East, Miller said.
Blinken and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, will co-host a ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Improving US-Saudi ties
Blinken's trip comes on the heels of other senior-level visits by American officials to the Gulf nation. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Jeddah last month. And in April, NSC Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Special Presidential Envoy Amos Hochstein also traveled to the Kingdom.
There’s a positive sea change in the US-Saudi relationship when compared to where it was in recent years, or even as recent as last fall, with differences over OPEC+ and oil prices, said Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at George Washington University.
“By de-escalating with Iran, extending an olive branch in Yemen, and leading evacuation and negotiation efforts in Sudan, the Kingdom has repositioned itself from being perceived as a political liability in Washington to increasingly being held as a valued strategic partner,” Maksad told Al Arabiya English.
A White House official praised the bilateral ties when asked if relations appeared to be improving between Washington and Riyadh.
President Joe Biden made several foreign policy decisions that were seen as targeting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf shortly after he entered office. Last year, the US publicly criticized Saudi Arabia and claimed it was siding with Russia after a decision by OPEC+ to cut oil output.
But in recent months, US and Saudi officials have cited increased cooperation and communication between the two countries.
“We’re focused on the future here. And I’m sure Secretary Blinken, when he gets to Riyadh, that will be the bulk of his messages, moving this relationship forward,” National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby told Al Arabiya English.
Speaking to reporters during a phone call on Friday, Kirby pointed to the “important strategic partnership for 80 years.”
He added: “We’ve certainly had differences of opinions. And that’s not to say that there won’t be some in the future, but it’s an important strategic partnership.”
Maksad also said there were still some differences and predicted that others would remerge, “particularly as Riyadh grows more assertive and charts a more independent path.”
Nevertheless, he said, the US and Saudi Arabia are focused on expanding, deepening, and institutionalizing the relationship to guard against future shocks.
Around 70,000 Americans work or live in Saudi Arabia, including thousands of US troops. “Saudi Arabia continues to have legitimate self-defense needs,” Kirby said.
In March, the US and Saudi Arabia completed their first joint counter-drone exercise at a new military testing center in Riyadh.
Over the last week, the US and Saudi militaries began exercise Eagle Resolve 23 in the Kingdom as they look to strengthen collective US-Saudi and GCC readiness. “Exercises like Eagle Resolve provide opportunities to demonstrate US-Saudi military cooperation and deepen interoperability across the GCC, all while advancing the security and stability in the Middle East,” US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Erik Kurilla said at the start of the drill.
The White House NSC official also commended Saudi Arabia for helping evacuate US citizens out of Sudan as well as its work to facilitate talks between the warring sides in Sudan.
“They’ve [Saudi Arabia] been a key partner in helping us maintain this now longest truce ever in Yemen and trying to find a way to end that war,” Kirby said. “So, there’s an awful lot on the agenda in this bilateral relationship, a critical bilateral relationship in the region, and I’m sure the Secretary [Blinken] is looking forward to advancing that.”
Separately, a State Department official said that the US would not leave a vaccum for others to fill, in an apparent reference to China’s growing influence in the region. “And that’s one more benefit of an engagement like [Blinken’s trip to Saudi Arabia] is that it helps shore up the bilateral relationships that ultimately are the underpinning of US strength in the region,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim said in a phone call with reporters.
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