JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on a trip to strengthen strained ties with the oil-rich kingdom as the long-time US ally forges closer relations with Washington’s rivals.
Blinken’s three-day visit will also focus on efforts to end conflicts in Sudan and Yemen, the joint battle against the Islamic State group (IS), and the Arab world’s relations with Israel.
Blinken met Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman late Tuesday, with the State Department saying 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.
Blinken and bin Salman also discussed the possibility of Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, a US official told The Times of Israel, adding that the two agreed to continue conversations on the matter moving forward.
A Saudi statement acknowledged the meeting, but offered no specifics.
Blinken will head to Riyadh Wednesday for a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting.
His trip comes at a time of quickly shifting alliances in the Middle East, centered around a China-brokered rapprochement between regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran in March.
Another landmark change saw Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad invited back to the Arab League last month for the first time since the start of the 12-year civil war in which his government has been backed by Russia and Iran.
“There is just a tremendous amount of work that we’re trying to do,” said Daniel Benaim, a US State Department senior official dealing with Arabian Peninsula affairs, before Blinken’s trip.
“We’re focused on an affirmative agenda here and the great deal of work our countries can do together,” he added.
The visit is Blinken’s first since the kingdom restored diplomatic ties with Iran, which the West considers a pariah over its contested nuclear activities and involvement in regional conflicts.
The United States offered cautious support for the deal that was sealed in China, the rising power making inroads in the Middle East.
US-Saudi relations, centered for decades on energy and defense, were badly strained by the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Washington was also upset when Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, refused to help bring down skyrocketing energy prices after Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February last year.
Rights activists including Abdullah Al-Qahtani, a US citizen whose father, Mohammad Al-Qahtani, was jailed for 10 years after founding a civil rights group in Saudi Arabia and who remains unaccounted for, urged Blinken to raise their concerns.
“He has to bring up my dad’s situation. Is he alive? Is he being tortured? We don’t know,” Abdullah Al-Qahtani told a virtual news conference.
Bin Salman, 37, who has steered an independent foreign policy course, also hosted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday.
Iran, the arch-enemy of the United States and Israel for decades, reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday following a seven-year hiatus.
Still, US-Saudi strategic relations remain close, especially on defense: Washington has long provided the Sunni Arab giant security protection from Shiite Iran, and Riyadh buys cutting-edge US weaponry.
US and Saudi diplomats have cooperated closely on efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire in Sudan’s eight-week-old war, so far unsuccessfully, and Saudi help was crucial in evacuating thousands of foreigners from the war zone.
The two allies are also engaged in the ongoing battle against IS, the jihadist group that has lost all its territory in the Middle East but is increasingly active in parts of Africa.
They are also discussing efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has long provided military support to the government in a fight against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
The United States also hopes that Saudi Arabia will eventually agree to normalize relations with Israel, which has already built ties with several other Arab countries under the Abraham Accords brokered by the Donald Trump administration, including close ally Bahrain.
On the eve of his Saudi trip Monday, Blinken reiterated that “the United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
He said Washington has “no illusions” that this can be done quickly or easily, but stressed that “we remain committed to working toward that outcome.”
Speaking at a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington on Monday morning, Blinken touted the strong US-Israel relationship and said Washington was advancing Israel’s security and its own “by working to deepen Israel’s relationships with its neighbors, to advance our goal of regional integration and de-escalation.”
“Israel’s further integration in the region contributes to a more stable, a more secure, and more prosperous region – and a more secure Israel,” Blinken said.
Saudi Arabia is thought to be seeking several large concessions from the US in exchange for normalization with Israel.
A senior Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel in March that Riyadh has asked the US to green-light its development of a civilian nuclear program, and approve a significant expansion of defense ties, including a system of guarantees to prevent future administrations from pulling out of weapons deals that have already been signed.
Saudi officials have also made clear to the Biden administration that any agreement with Israel will also have to include a significant gesture for the Palestinians, a senior US official told The Times of Israel in May.
AP contributed to this report.