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Tensions in US-Saudi ties cloud Blinken visit to Riyadh

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By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Humeyra Pamuk

RIYADH (Reuters) -A visit by the U.S. Secretary of State to Saudi Arabia drew little Saudi media coverage on Thursday at a time of soured relations despite a U.S. push to defuse rows that have touched on oil prices, human rights and Riyadh’s opening to Iran.

Antony Blinken was the second top U.S. official to visit Washington’s closest strategic ally in the Middle East in less than a month, following a May 7 trip by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

However, Blinken’s meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers were relegated to the inside pages of Al-Watan and Okaz, the two major newspapers in Saudi Arabia.

Their front pages were devoted to unrelated topics including the arrival of star French football striker Karim Benzema in Jeddah to join the Al Ittihad club.

Blinken and the crown prince, widely known as MbS, had “open, candid” talks for an hour and 40 minutes, a U.S. official said, covering topics including the conflict in neighbouring Yemen, the war in Sudan, Israel, and human rights.

The semi-official English-language daily Arab News covered Blinken’s comments in his talks at GCC headquarters, including those touching on Yemen, but did not mention the U.S. diplomatic push for Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalise relations.

“We share a commitment to lowering Israeli-Palestinian tensions, maintaining a horizon of hope, and working toward a two-state solution,” Blinken said in his speech at the GCC, referring to Palestinians’ quest for statehood in territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

“And we’re also collaborating with countries in the region to widen and deepen the normalisation of relations with Israel.”

Saudi Arabia, a Middle East powerhouse and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines, has resisted heavy U.S. pressure to end generations-old non-recognition of Israel as have Gulf Arab neighbours the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Riyadh says Palestinian statehood goals should be addressed first before normalisation with Israel. Saudi Arabia went the other way in April in restoring ties with Iran, its key regional rival and Israel’s arch-enemy, in a Chinese-brokered deal.

NO ‘GIFT’

Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst specialising in Gulf-Israel ties, said Riyadh would not budge on normalisation for reasons including Israel’s hardline nationalist-religious government and displeasure with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

“This is not the American administration that Saudis would want to gift a Saudi-Israeli normalisation to,” Alghashian said.

“It’s going to be a massive achievement, it’s going to be under an American umbrella, and they don’t want the Biden administration to take any credit for that,” he said.

Riyadh has also leveraged its growing relationships with Russia and China as the Biden administration has pushed back against some Saudi demands including lifting restrictions on arms sales and help with sensitive high-tech industries.

U.S.-Saudi relations have deteriorated since the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

They worsened after the Biden administration took office in early 2021 and released a U.S. intelligence assessment that MbS approved Khashoggi’s killing, which the crown prince denied.

Other rows have simmered over the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s devastating conflict, China ties and oil prices.

Blinken’s visit came days after Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, pledged to cut crude output further on top of a broader OPEC+ deal to limit supply – moves to boost flagging oil prices despite U.S. opposition.

Western powers have been critical of OPEC’s decisions to cut oil output and see its OPEC+ partnership with Russia as questionable amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia and other OPEC states say the organisation is not politicised and only seeks to stabilise energy markets.

On Wednesday, as Blinken was meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, MbS and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call in which they praised their OPEC+ cooperation.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Humeyra Pamuk and Maha El Dahan; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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