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Blinken visits Saudi Arabia amid strained ties, Israel normalization in mind

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By Humeyra Pamuk

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on a mission to steady Washington’s relationship with Riyadh after years of deepening disagreements on issues ranging from Iran and regional security to oil prices.

Blinken met with the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, and they “discussed deepening economic cooperation, especially in the clean energy and technology fields”, according to a State Department readout.

Blinken was also set to meet other top Saudi officials during his time in Riyadh, the capital, and the coastal city of Jeddah, in what will be Washington’s second recent high-level visit.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia on May 7.

The top U.S. diplomat’s June 6-8 visit to the world’s largest oil exporter comes days after Riyadh pledged to further cut oil production, a move likely to add tension to a U.S.-Saudi relationship already strained by the kingdom’s human rights record and disputes over America’s Iran policy.

The aims of the trip include regaining influence with Riyadh over oil prices, fending off Chinese and Russian influence in the region and nurturing hopes for an eventual normalization of Saudi-Israeli ties.

Speaking at the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Blinken said Washington had “a real national security interest” in advocating for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but cautioned that it will not happen quickly.

Discouraging a closer Saudi-Chinese relationship is probably the most important element of Blinken’s visit, said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at Washington-based think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

“[Blinken should explain] why Chinese interests do not align with Saudi Arabia, and why closer relations in a strategic way inhibit closer relations with Washington,” Goldberg said.

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U.S.-Saudi ties got off to a rocky start in 2019 when President Joe Biden during his campaign said he would treat Riyadh like “the pariah that they are” if he was elected, and soon after taking office in 2021, released a U.S. intelligence assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed approved the operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

A visit by Biden in July 2022 to the kingdom did little to ease tensions, and increasingly, Riyadh has looked to reassert its regional clout, while growing less interested in being aligned with U.S. priorities in the region.

The most recent example was when MbS gave a warm embrace to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at an Arab League summit in May, which saw Arab states readmit Syria after a decade of suspension, a move Washington said it neither supported nor encouraged.

The kingdom has been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into transforming and opening its economy to reduce dependence on crude oil. The reforms have been accompanied by a raft of arrests of critics of MbS, as well as of businessmen, clerics and rights activists.

U.S. citizens and residents with family members detained in Saudi Arabia called on Blinken in a letter on Tuesday to press Saudi officials for an immediate release of their relatives. The list included prominent cleric Salman al-Odah, children of former spy chief Saad al-Jabri, human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani and aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.

The kingdom had released detained U.S. citizens from its prisons but some still remain under a travel ban.

U.S. officials briefing reporters on the trip last week said there was an “ongoing conversation regarding the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms” with Saudi Arabia but they declined to say if Blinken would seek any guarantees from the Saudis on the issue.

Blinken “emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in the readout of his meeting with MbS.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Simon Lewis, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Costas Pitas; Editing by Leslie Adler, Sharon Singleton, Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle)

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