Antony Blinken's visit to Saudi Arabia set to strengthen relations with US, experts say

US Secretary of State's trip aimed at underlining Washington's commitment to its partner in the region

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, pictured giving a speech in Finland, is set to fly to Saudi Arabia. EPA
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit Saudi Arabia to boost relations between the two powers, experts say.

The two-day trip will be the second by a senior US official to the kingdom in a month, after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan's visit in early May.

In Riyadh, he will attend the US-Saudi Strategic dialogue and a Gulf Co-operation Council meeting.

He will meet officials in the kingdom to discuss US-Saudi co-operation on a regional and global level. Bilateral issues such as economic and security co-operation will also feature high on the agenda, a US State Department statement said.

The visit is "intended to show that the US is committed to its partner in the region – important in the context of growing Saudi frustration with Washington", Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told The National.

"It gives Washington an opportunity to push for greater co-ordination and co-operation in the aftermath of the much publicised Iran-Saudi deal."

In March, Tehran and Riyadh signed a Chinese-brokered agreement "to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months".

Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in early 2016 in response to attacks on its diplomatic missions in Tehran.

The move affected relations with Washington, which Ms Esfandiary says are complicated and have changed.

"It’s no longer a relationship where Washington calls the shots and tells Riyadh what to do but one which from Riyadh’s perspective is more equal, where Riyadh pursues its own interests and seeks to secure itself as well," she said.

"This means everyone has to adjust to the new reality."

Powerful signal to the region

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East North Africa Programme at London's Chatham House, said Mr Blinken's trip was "designed to reaffirm US-Saudi co-operation on multiple fronts ranging from regional security, the strategic dialogue, Yemeni peace and Saudi-Israeli reconciliation process".

"Despite shifts in Riyadh and Washington, Mr Blinken intends to blunt continued rumours about tensions in the relationship and showcase that co-operation and diplomacy continues to underpin US-Saudi ties," she told The National.

Washington's decision to send a senior official to the kingdom will be seen as a powerful signal to the region.

Mr Blinken aims to ensure that ties between the US and Saudi Arabia continue moving forward.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby last week said: “We have all maintained that it's an important strategic partnership and it has been for 80 years.

“It doesn't mean we always agree with the Saudis on everything, or that they agree with us on everything. We've certainly had differences of opinion. And that's not to say that there won't be some in the future. It's an important strategic partnership."

Mr Blinken will co-host the meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, along with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, on Wednesday.

The goal will be to “promote security, stability, de-escalation, regional integration and economic opportunities across the Middle East”, the State Department said.

The Secretary of State's agenda will also include efforts to resolve the war in Yemen between the Saudi-backed government and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

By mending ties with Iran and potentially stepping back from Yemen, Saudi Arabia can continue a wide-ranging diplomatic push.

Riyadh and Washington have also been involved in efforts to broker a durable truce between Sudan's warring generals in talks in Jeddah.

However, the US and Saudi Arabia suspended efforts last week after the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces repeatedly breached the ceasefire.

Updated: June 05, 2023, 12:59 PM