Blinken's second journey to Saudi Arabia since becoming America's top diplomat comes after the kingdom under Prince Mohammed has become more independent in its decision-making. Riyadh has repeatedly clashed with President Joe Biden over its supply of crude oil to global markets, its willingness to collaborate with Russia in OPEC+, and its desire to reach a détente with Iran through Chinese mediation. Biden also vowed to label Saudi Arabia a "pariah" for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
However, Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf Arab states, continues to rely on the United States as the security guarantor for the broader Middle East as tensions over Iran's nuclear program have led to a series of attacks in recent years. In addition, Riyadh and Washington have been collaborating to achieve a lasting ceasefire between the Sudanese military and a rival paramilitary force, which has been elusive during weeks of combat. And Saudi Arabia desires to end its conflict in Yemen, a goal shared by the United States.
Under the hood, particularly regarding security and a few other issues, the relationship is stronger than it was a year ago, according to a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C., Hussein Ibish. "It appears more strained, and in some ways it is, but overall it is stronger."
Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia more eager to engage internationally, especially after participating in prisoner exchanges during Russia's conflict in Ukraine. Last month, the kingdom hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at an Arab League summit, followed by Russia's sanctioned interior minister.
With crude prices significantly below $100 per barrel, the Biden administration is not immediately concerned about summer gas prices. Washington hopes to leverage its security relationship with Saudi Arabia as relations with China and Russia grow warmer. Ibish stated that the Saudis likely desire assurances Biden cannot provide regarding Congress halting arms sales to the kingdom.
"Khashoggi continues to plague the corridors of Congress. I do not believe this issue has been resolved in Washington," said Ibish. The rest of the world has progressed, but I do not believe Congress has.
Last week, when asked about Blinken's mention of human rights issues, including Khashoggi's demise, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim told journalists that "human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region." Benaim refused to provide specifics.
"What you'll see on this trip is a vision of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that is rooted in our historic pillars of cooperation in areas like defense and security and counterterrorism, includes ongoing regional diplomacy in Yemen and Sudan, and seeks opportunities for regional de-escalation and regional integration," Benaim said.
He stated, "We will not leave a vacuum for our strategic competitors in the region."
Wednesday morning, Blinken met with Prince Mohammed, and according to the State Department, they discussed their "shared commitment to advance stability, security, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond."
"The secretary also emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights," a statement added.
A Saudi statement acknowledged the meeting but provided no additional information.
Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, traveled to Jeddah in May and met with Prince Mohammed before Blinken's visit. According to Saudi state television, the prince also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a longtime adversary of the United States, for a meeting late Monday.
In addition to meeting Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials, Blinken will attend an anti-Islamic State meeting in Riyadh and confer with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the six members of the GCC.
Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., opined that "a deeper diplomatic engagement by the United States is more likely to produce better long-term results than simply washing our hands and withdrawing from the region."
However, there are numerous obstacles.
The Yemen war continues despite prisoner transfers and efforts to end the conflict. Meanwhile, both parties likely have desires that cannot be satisfied. Saudi Arabia has pushed for nuclear cooperation that includes the United States, enabling it to enrich uranium in the kingdom. This has caused concern among nonproliferation experts, as centrifuges open the door to a possible weapons program. Prince Mohammed has stated that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran possessed one.
Blinken told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night that the Biden administration continues to believe "that diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively, and sustainably prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon." Nevertheless, he continued, "All options are on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
Blinken first visited Saudi Arabia as America's chief diplomat during Biden's trip there last year. Biden flew directly from Israel to the kingdom on this occasion. Just before the event, Saudi Arabia granted Israeli airlines overflight rights to Asia, allowing them to save flight time and aircraft fuel.
Diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia is currently improbable, despite the 2020 recognition of Israel by neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Under King Salman's reign, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged Israel to permit the Palestinians to establish a state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 conflict. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now presides over the most right-wing and religious government in Israel's history, rendering such a move extremely unlikely in light of the escalating violence and tensions in the region.