Biden administration gives senior Saudi visitor the red carpet treatment signaling possible warming ties
By Nicole Gaouette and Kylie Atwood
The Biden administration hosted the most senior Saudi official to arrive in Washington since the White House distanced itself earlier this year from the kingdom and its defacto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a visit that may signal yet another recalibration in the fraught relationship.
Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, a prince and brother to Mohammed, has had meetings with Biden’s most senior national security officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The prince’s arrival hasn’t been without controversy, as some State Department officials have expressed frustration with the broad access he has been given, according to two sources familiar with the visit.
But as the administration struggles on a number of fronts — with a likely resurgence of Taliban violence in Afghanistan, the ongoing war in Yemen, faltering Iran talks and gas prices at seven-year highs as Americans hit the road to celebrate summer and post-quarantine freedom — Saudi Arabia’s role in all these areas becomes too important to ignore.
“Too many times, too many administrations, every president eventually gets mugged by reality on this and comes to the conclusion that as hard as it is to live with the Saudis as close partners, given the huge gap in values that exists between the two societies, it’s even much harder to have to deal with them as potential adversaries or as an unfriendly country,” said John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “They just remain too important.”
Red carpet treatment
Bin Salman’s red carpet treatment marks a sharp change from February, when the administration released a report finding the Crown Prince directly responsible for approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; sanctioned dozens of Saudis tied to human rights abuses; and ended US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
That shift is generating some debate within the administration and leaving some State Department officials frustrated at the broad access being given to the 33-year-old prince, according to two sources familiar with the royal’s visit to the department.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday that he expected Blinken would “have a chance to take part in part of” a meeting with senior State Department officials and bin Salman.
As Blinken prepared to see the prince — who as a deputy defense minister would normally be too junior in rank to be meeting a secretary of state — their appointment was the subject of internal debate, the sources said. There was also some frustration on Tuesday when the Saudis canceled a dinner they had planned with Biden administration officials just hours before the gathering at the Saudi ambassador’s residence in DC, the sources said.
The Saudis told US officials they had to make calls back to Riyadh in advance of Wednesday’s meetings at the State Department, the source said. The Saudi embassy has not replied to CNN’s queries about the dinner or bin Salman’s plans to meet Blinken on Wednesday.
The prince’s visit wasn’t listed on Blinken’s public schedule, and his stay in Washington wasn’t announced in advance, perhaps an attempt to keep it discreet.
In February, Biden and other officials emphasized they were ending the coziness that marked the Trump administration’s ties to Saudi Arabia, and with it, a blind eye to the kingdom’s human rights abuses. But they also made clear the US would continue to support, protect, and work with the kingdom because of shared interests.
As part of this balance, Biden has made clear he will not deal directly with the Crown Prince, but instead will work with the country’s ruler, King Salman. The Saudis still want Biden to hold a phone call to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which he has not done, sources told CNN. The Biden administration sees this visit, with the high-level meetings they’ve given Prince Khalid as a potential incentive to encourage the Saudis to work with the US on certain issues in the region.
Energy is one critically important area for both countries. A White House statement Tuesday said that Sullivan and bin Salman “discussed the importance of coordinating efforts to ensure a strong global economic recovery” — a possible reference to energy markets.
Goldman Sachs warned Tuesday that world oil stockpiles are in danger of falling to critically low levels after OPEC failed to reach agreement Monday on raising oil production. While Biden’s emphasis on the environment makes it difficult for him to publicly urge Saudi Arabia to pump more fossil fuels, an oil price spike could amplify inflation fears and is already providing ammunition for Republican attacks against him.
The Saudis could also play an intermediary role in Afghanistan, where the Biden administration has withdrawn more than 90% of troops, and where US intelligence services say the Taliban could retake control of the country in anywhere between six to 12 months, according to people familiar with the reports.
Under the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has tried to position itself as a constructive actor on Afghanistan and has a long-standing interest and influence in the country. Riyadh was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government before the US and allies invaded in 2001, and analysts say it maintained informal ties with the group after NATO’s military intervention.
Other areas in the region remain a concern. In a meeting with the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, bin Salman discussed Ethiopia “and areas where the United States and Saudi Arabia could potentially cooperate to address the crisis and to mitigate the instability in the broader region,” Price said.
Saudi Arabia also remains a central player in the war in Yemen, where Biden administration officials hoped the violence and humanitarian suffering might ease. Instead, analysts say the violence has intensified since February as Iran-backed Houthi rebels have fought to complete their control of northern Yemen.
Price said bin Salman met with Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking to discuss “steps to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and steps necessary to end the conflict there.”
“Special Envoy Lenderking stressed the need for continued Saudi engagement on Yemen, allowing space for a nationwide, comprehensive ceasefire, followed by a transition to a Yemeni political process that would lead to a permanent solution to this conflict,” Price said.
Some observers see changes in the administration’s tone on Yemen. “The administration entered with all the enthusiasm that the Saudis were the bad guys in the war in Yemen,” said Hannah, who was a national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and now sits on the advisory board of the Vandenberg Coalition, a foreign policy group. “The whole mood music has changed as the Houthis and the Iranians have proceeded to escalate the conflict.”
The US is also wrestling with Iran nuclear talks that seem to be foundering — another area of common interest with the Saudis.
In a statement Wednesday, the State Department said the prince met with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland and Counselor Derek Chollet for discussions “on regional security, support for Saudi Arabia to defend itself from cross-border attacks, and improving human rights.”
Blinken joined the group for part of the meeting to discuss efforts to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and transition to a political process in Yemen, the need for economic reform and humanitarian relief for the Lebanese people, and other key bilateral issues, including human rights, the statement said.
Originally published in CNN