By the time Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken wrapped up a visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, he and Saudi officials had discussed cooperation on a smorgasbord of issues: Iran, Sudan, the Islamic State, regional infrastructure, clean energy and the potential normalization of Saudi-Israel relations.
Mr. Blinken gave effusive remarks on the work being done at a news conference in Riyadh: “It is critical for expanding opportunity and driving progress for our people and for people around the world.”
It was the type of bonhomie that American officials usually reserve for close allies. Mr. Blinken’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which included a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the nation’s de facto leader, is the most obvious effort yet by the Biden administration to move past the hostility that President Biden expressed at the prince and his government last fall.
The blowup took place after Saudi officials cut oil production despite a perception by U.S. officials that they had agreed to increase it. Mr. Biden vowed to impose “consequences.” But in the months since, the president and his top aides have come to accept what they see as a hard reality of the new geopolitical landscape, say analysts and people familiar with U.S. officials’ discussions: that Washington cannot afford to alienate powerful partners if it intends to compete with China and Russia across the globe.
Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS, at the same time appears to be cannily leveraging his country’s position at the nexus of superpower competition, the world’s energy markets and Middle East security. He and his aides have made clear that they will not be forced to choose sides in international power struggles, and that they are open to being courted by all parties and see benefits in maintaining strong ties with each of them.
Indeed, officials in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations say they reject the binary choice that they feel has been posed to them by American and European officials since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the context of the growing U.S.-China competition.
“China is our largest trading partner, so naturally there is a lot of interaction and intersection with China,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, said at the joint news conference with Mr. Blinken. “That cooperation is likely to grow just because China’s economic impact in the region and beyond is likely to grow as its economy continues to grow. But we still have a robust security partnership with the U.S. That security partnership is refreshed on an almost daily basis.”
“I don’t ascribe to this zero-sum game,” he added. “I think we are all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements.”
Prince Mohammed has used diplomatic events this week — as well as his kingdom’s surprise multibillion-dollar investment in the PGA Tour — to put on display his growing power and influence on the world stage. Those moves are further evidence of his desire to juggle partnerships and hedge against Saudi Arabia’s historic reliance on the United States.
Just days before Mr. Blinken’s arrival, the prince welcomed President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, whom the United States considers a malign ruler, to Jeddah for an official visit. On Tuesday, Iran, a Saudi rival, reopened its embassy in Riyadh as a result of a deal between the two nations that China helped arrange in March. And next week, Saudi Arabia’s investment ministry plans to host a major meeting of Arab and Chinese businesspeople.
It is Prince Mohammed’s assertive building of ties with China in recent months that has done more to shift attitudes within the Biden administration than anything else, say the people briefed on U.S. officials’ discussions.
U.S. officials watched intently as the prince gave Xi Jinping, China’s leader, a lavish reception in December, just weeks after Mr. Biden lashed out at the prince. And although Mr. Biden’s aides welcome the Saudi-Iran diplomatic rapprochement that China helped orchestrate, they noted that the episode signaled China’s more muscular role in the region.
“Saudi Arabia and the United States are trying to manage the transition of the relationship in a new multipolar reality,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“The relationship now looks more like the way the U.S. relates to some European partners,” he added. “Security cooperation is key and maintained by both sides, but the Saudis are flexing their muscles in an effort to become a regional and international actor of significance in a world in which power is diffused and the U.S. picks its battles much more cautiously.”
Mr. Blinken said Thursday that “we’re not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China,” and that he believed “the United States remains the No. 1 partner of choice for, I think, most countries in the region.”
Besides aiming to ensure Saudi Arabia maintains some distance from China and Russia, several top Biden administration officials have argued it is important to bolster ties with the kingdom for more traditional reasons: balancing against Iran, fighting terrorist groups and selling U.S.-made weapons. Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, two White House officials, are proponents of stronger ties and have made recent trips to the kingdom, as has Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.
But Mr. Biden has a persistent distrust of Prince Mohammed, with whom he did a reluctant fist bump in Jeddah last July, and strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia runs counter to his favorite framing of his foreign policy: an American-led struggle to bolster democracy against autocracy.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden released a U.S. intelligence report that assessed the prince had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post and Virginia resident who was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. (Prince Mohammed has denied playing any role in what he described as a rogue operation.) Also in 2021, Mr. Biden suspended the sale of certain munitions to the kingdom after vowing to end U.S. support for a Saudi-led coalition in the catastrophic Yemen war.
But since then, his administration has notified Congress of at least $4 billion of arms sales and military services to Saudi Arabia.
Advocates of tougher policies on Saudi Arabia say Mr. Biden is now taking a conventional approach.
“Human rights is nowhere on the agenda other than this reduced, dumbed-down version: We’re going to lobby to get Americans released from prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. She added that she saw little difference between Mr. Biden’s actions and those of President Donald J. Trump, who sought to befriend Prince Mohammed. (Six months after leaving his White House job, Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, received a $2 billion investment from a Saudi fund led by the prince.)
“Look at the Biden administration’s actual policy, look at the actual relationship,” Ms. Whitson said. “It’s similar, if not far more humiliating. MBS has been spanking President Biden for the last two years.”
Many U.S. lawmakers, especially Democrats, have criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and are watching the Biden administration’s moves. Some senior lawmakers intend to keep holds on sales of some weapons to the kingdom. The legislators are also tracking what concessions Prince Mohammed is demanding from the United States in return for normalization with Israel, a move that would be opposed by many Saudi citizens.
The prince has told U.S. officials he would like security guarantees from the United States and greater military cooperation, mainly to deter Iran. His opening demand is for a mutual defense commitment like the one enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who met with Saudi officials last month.
And Prince Mohammed has asked Washington to help Saudi Arabia develop a civilian nuclear program with uranium enrichment, a proposal that spurs fears of proliferation among some U.S. officials and arms control experts.
“Before we even think about expanding our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom needs to prove to us that they understand our partnership goes both ways,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.
Biden aides have tried to get Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prince Mohammed invited President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to speak at an Arab League summit last month, but the Arab countries have remained neutral. There are strains in Saudi-Russia ties on oil policy, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are big purchasers of Russian oil because of its current discounted price.
In his juggling of superpowers, Mr. Goldberg said, the prince is “pulling levers to get the White House’s attention,” and American officials are puzzled over “whether he’s in a permanent policy of hedging or whether he’s playing hard to get.”