US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that Saudi Arabia is a “critical partner” in countering Iran’s power in the Middle East as well as helping to expand the Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Israel and Arab nations.
Blinken was asked about the Biden administration balancing its effort to push Saudi Arabia on its human rights record alongside the White House wanting Riyadh to help with the energy crisis and take steps toward normalizing with Israel.
“When we came in, President Biden was determined that we recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to make sure that the relationship was serving our own interests, as well as our values, as we move forward, but also preserving it, because it also helps us accomplish many important things,” Blinken said at a virtual event organized by Foreign Affairs magazine. “That’s largely what we’ve done.”
“Saudi Arabia is a critical partner to us in dealing with extremism in the region, in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran, and also I hope in continuing the process of building relationships between Israel and its neighbors both near and further away through the continuation, the expansion of the Abraham Accords,” he added.
Israel has long sought ties with Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday that Israel is coordinating with the United States and Gulf nations on a process to normalize ties with Riyadh.
“We believe that it is possible to have a normalization process with Saudi Arabia. It’s in our interest,” Lapid told Army Radio. “We’re working with the US and the Gulf states on this.”
“We’ve already said that this is the next step after the Abraham Accords, to talk about a long and careful process,” he added, referring to the 2020 US-backed normalization deals Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Saudi Arabia was seen as giving approval to the UAE and Bahrain to forge ties with Israel.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years. The powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, reportedly sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.
Lapid cautioned that the process of normalization with Saudi Arabia would be a lengthy one with progress coming in small steps, stressing that both countries have security interests at stake.
“This won’t happen the same way it did last time,” Lapid said in reference to the rapid nature in which the 2020 normalization deals were announced. “We won’t wake up one morning suddenly and it will be a surprise.”
“It could be that three foreign ministers after me, someone will be standing on the podium and will celebrate this, which is completely fine. This is how one runs a state,” Lapid said.
Saudi Arabia has long said it seeks a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before it normalizes ties with the Jewish state.
Lapid’s comments came as dozens of Israeli tech entrepreneurs and business people recently flew to Saudi Arabia for advanced talks on Saudi investments in Israeli companies and Israeli investment funds, according to a Sunday report in the Globes business daily.
Last week, a pair of senior US officials were reportedly in Saudi Arabia for covert talks on an agreement that could boost Washington’s ties with Riyadh while also bringing the kingdom closer to normalizing with Israel.
According to the Axios news site, the trip was part of efforts to finalize an agreement on the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.
The islands feature prominently in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and their transfer to Saudi control thus requires a degree of Israeli support. As a result, the US and Israel are reportedly pushing Riyadh to take a series of small steps toward full normalization with Jerusalem.
The Axios report said among the proposed steps are allowing Israel to use Saudi airspace for all flights, not just trips to Gulf countries, and direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina.
Additionally, a senior Israeli official was hosted recently at a Riyadh palace for talks on various aspects of security and other coordination, Channel 12 news reported last week, without citing a source. The Yedioth Ahronoth daily also reported meetings between figures from both countries, without providing any further information.
The reports come ahead of US President Joe Biden’s expected visit to the Middle East, which will reportedly include stops in both Israel and in Saudi Arabia, in a stark reversal for the president, who once called for the kingdom to be made a pariah.
Biden’s reported decision Thursday to visit came hours after Saudi Arabia addressed two of Biden’s priorities by agreeing to a production hike in oil and helping extend a truce in war-battered Yemen. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global energy markets, and Saudi Arabia has said it will increase oil production in July and August.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, quoting anonymous sources, said that Biden would go ahead with the long-rumored Saudi stop on the upcoming trip.
CNN said that Biden would meet Crown Prince Mohammed, who was accused by US intelligence of ordering the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Crown Prince Mohammad has also cracked down on dissent in the kingdom by detaining journalists, activists and others, and human rights advocates have condemned Saudi Arabia for recent mass executions.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she had no travel to announce, adding only: “The president will look for opportunities to engage with leaders from the Middle East region.”
However, a senior administration official told AFP that if Biden “determines that it’s in the interests of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so.”
While not confirming the trip, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was “no question that important interests are interwoven with Saudi Arabia.”
While running for president, Biden called for Saudi leaders to be treated as “the pariah that they are” after the ultraconservative kingdom’s chummy relationship with his predecessor Donald Trump.
Trump had largely shielded Saudi Arabia from consequences after Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote critically about Crown Prince Mohammed in The Washington Post, was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was strangled and dismembered.
In a rare interview earlier this year with The Atlantic, Crown Prince Mohammed said of whether Biden understood him: “Simply, I do not care.”
“It’s up to him to think about the interests of America,” he said.
AFP contributed to this report.