JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, June 7 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had an “open, honest” conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman early on Wednesday about a range of bilateral issues, a U.S. official said. .
The top US diplomat arrived in Saudi Arabia late on Tuesday amid strained relations over everything from Iran policy to regional security issues, oil prices and human rights.
Washington has struggled to maintain relations with Riyadh, where de facto ruler Prince Mohammed has dominated decision-making, and the traditional oil-security alliance has crumbled under the emergence of the United States as a major oil producer.
Blinken’s visit comes days after top crude exporter Saudi Arabia vowed to deepen oil production cuts on top of a broader OPEC+ deal to limit supply as it seeks to raise flagging oil prices despite opposition from the US administration.
Blinken, known as MbS, and the crown prince met for an hour and 40 minutes, a US official said, covering topics including Israel, the Yemen conflict, unrest in Sudan and human rights.
“There was a good level of convergence on potential initiatives where we share common interests, while also recognizing where we have differences,” the US official said.
A good portion of the discussion was expected to be dominated by the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, although officials downplayed the possibility of any immediate or major progress on the issue.
“They discussed the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel and agreed to continue negotiations on this issue,” the US official said, without providing further details.
In a speech before leaving for Jeddah in Washington on Monday, Blinken warned that no progress on the issue would be immediate. “We’re under no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, a Middle East powerhouse and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines, along with Gulf neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, gave their blessing in 2020 to the previous US administration, Donald Trump, to establish ties with Israel.
Riyadh did not follow suit, saying that Palestinian state goals should be addressed first. In April, Saudi Arabia restored ties with regional rival and arch-enemy Iran.
Building a civilian nuclear program is one of Riyadh’s conditions for normalizing ties with Israel, a source familiar with the discussions confirmed a New York Times report from March. Neither Saudi nor US officials have publicly confirmed.
However, U.S. officials have said in the past that they would only share nuclear technology if the deal prevented them from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium made in nuclear reactors — two ways to make nuclear weapons.
Riyadh has also improved its growing relationship with China as Washington pushed back against some of its demands, including lifting restrictions on arms sales and helping key high-tech industries.
Two days after Blinken’s visit, Riyadh will host a major Arab-Chinese investment conference.
Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said China would help the Saudis in areas the United States would not, but the relationship between Riyadh and Beijing lacked the same depth as Washington’s.
“At this point I would still classify the US-Saudi relationship as strategic and the China-Saudi relationship as transactional,” Fulton said.
In brief remarks before a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers, Blinken sought to reassure them of Washington’s focus on the region.
“America must be present in this region, and we are investing deeply in partnership with all of you,” he said.
MbS and Blinken also discussed possible ways to resolve Yemen and remaining issues, while Blinken thanked the crown prince for the kingdom’s role in helping to secure a ceasefire in Sudan and evacuate American citizens.
Blinken also raised human rights issues with MbS, the US official said, both broadly and related to specific cases, although he did not say which cases.
The kingdom is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into transforming and opening up its economy to reduce its dependence on crude oil. Critics of MbS’s reforms have been arrested as well as businessmen, clerics and rights activists.
Most recently in March, Saudi authorities released a US citizen who had been sentenced to 19 years in prison for criticizing the government on Twitter, but he has been banned from traveling.
Report by Humeyra Pamuk and Aziz El Yaakoubi and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mark Potter and Emilia Sithole-Madaris
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