US secretary of state Antony Blinken has met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid strained relations between Riyadh and Washington.
Mr Blinken’s second visit to Saudi Arabia since becoming America’s top diplomat comes as the kingdom under Prince Mohammed becomes more willing to disregard the US when it comes to making its own decisions.
Riyadh has clashed repeatedly with President Joe Biden on its supply of crude oil to global markets, its willingness to partner with Russia in OPEC+ and reaching a detente with Iran mediated by China.
Mr Biden also pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
However, Saudi Arabia still relies – like other Gulf Arab nations – on the US to be the security guarantor for the wider Middle East as tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme in recent years have spilled over into a series of attacks.
Riyadh and Washington have also been working in tandem to try and strike a lasting ceasefire in Sudan, which has proven elusive during weeks of fighting between that country’s military and a rival paramilitary force.
Saudi Arabia also wants to end its war in Yemen, something also sought by the US.
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said: “Under the hood, especially when it comes to security and a few other matters like that, the relationship is stronger than it was a year ago.
“It looks more strained – and in some superficial ways it is – but it is overall stronger.”
Mr Blinken arrived to a Saudi Arabia more eager to engage internationally, particularly after being involved in prisoner swaps in Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
The kingdom hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last month at an Arab League summit, then Russia’s sanctioned interior minister immediately afterwards.
With oil prices well below 100 dollars a barrel, the Biden administration does not have an immediate concern over prices at the pump in the summer driving season.
Washington likely does hope to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as its ties become warmer with China and Russia. However, the Saudis likely want guarantees that Mr Biden cannot provide when it comes to congress stopping arms sales to the kingdom, Mr Ibish said.
“Khashoggi still haunts the halls of congress. I don’t think that’s over in Washington,” Mr Ibish said.
“The rest of the world has moved on, but I don’t think that congress has moved on.”
When asked about Mr Blinken bringing up human rights issues, including Mr Khashoggi’s death, deputy assistant secretary for Arabian peninsula affairs Daniel Benaim told journalists last week that “human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region”.
He added: “I think what you’ll see on this trip is a vision of the US-Saudi relationship that’s both rooted in our historic mainstays of cooperation in areas like defence and security and counter-terrorism, includes ongoing important regional diplomacy when it comes to Yemen and Sudan, and looks for opportunities for regional de-escalation and regional integration.
“We will not leave a vacuum for our strategic competitors in the region.”
Mr Blinken met Prince Mohammed early on Wednesday in Jeddah, with the US state department saying they discussed their “shared commitment to advance stability, security, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond”.
“The secretary also emphasised that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” the statement added.
A Saudi statement acknowledged the meeting, but offered no specifics.
Mr Blinken’s visit comes after Mr Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, travelled to Jeddah in May and met Prince Mohammed. The prince also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a long-standing foe of America, for a meeting late on Monday, Saudi state television reported.
Outside of meeting Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials, Mr Blinken also will attend an anti-Islamic State meeting in Riyadh and meet with foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The six-nation GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.