US maintains coordination with Saudi Arabia at a minimum

Blinken ended a Middle East tour on Thursday. He visited Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo and Amman but Riyadh was not on the schedule.
Saturday 29/05/2021
A file picture shows US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking during a press conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on April 7, 2015. (AFP)
A file picture shows US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking during a press conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on April 7, 2015. (AFP)

RIYADH--A phone call between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and his American counterpart Anthony Blinken proved coordination and consultations are continuing between Riyadh and Washington, but at a minimum.

Blinken ended a Middle East tour on Thursday. He visited Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo and Amman but Riyadh was not on the schedule.

A Gulf diplomat who previously worked in the United States considered that “there is an undeniable chill in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, he said on condition of anonymity, that “it is remarkable that an American foreign minister did not visit Saudi Arabia as part of a Middle East tour aimed at shoring up a ceasefire that ended the worst fighting in years between Israel and Palestinian militants.”

The Kingdom, the diplomat said, “can only be a part of the process to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially that it has the most logical vision for a solution as included in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.”

Saudi TV said Thursday that Prince Faisal discussed, in a phone call with Blinken, the “strategic partnership” between Saudi Arabia and the United States and “aspects of cooperation on regional and international challenges.”

The Gulf diplomat, however, noted, “There are outstanding issues between the two sides that have not been fully settled as expected. This is what can be concluded from the behaviour of the American side that has been satisfied with brief consultations over the phone, despite stormy developments and the importance of files at hand.”

In recent months, Washington-Riyadh relations have cooled from the very close ties of the Trump era

In this scenario, the kingdom is moving to lower the temperature on several fronts, including patching up a bitter three-year feud with rival Qatar, as it courts investment to fund its ambitious megaprojects meant to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

The Kingdom also responded positively to Turkey’s desire of reconciliation with Riyadh, and showed a cautious readiness to open dialogue with Iran.

But its main struggle is to disentangle itself from the wrenching conflict in Yemen, which has left tens of thousands of people dead and triggered an humanitarian crisis.

The rise to power of a Democrat administration, led by US President Joe Biden,  provoked a decline in relations between Riyadh and Washington, as compared to close and strong ties during the administration of Republican President Donald Trump.

In late February this year,  the US released a declassified intelligence report that concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince likely approved the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The US has also withdrawn support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive in Yemen and removed the Houthis from a list of “foreign terrorist organisations.”

The Biden’s administration then abandoned the policy of maximum pressure on Iran, the kingdom’s archrival and opened indirect channels of dialogue with Tehran in order to re-enter Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

As for the American side, a rupture with the Kingdom seems completely unlikely in view of the wide range of political, economic and security interests that still bind Washington to Riyadh. Coordination and communication are, in fact, ongoing between the two countries, even at a minimum.

Saudi Deputy Minister of Defence Prince Khalid bin Salman met earlier this week US Marine Corps General Kenneth Franklin McKenzie Jr, commander of the United States Central Command.

“During the meeting, the two sides discussed the partnership between the Kingdom and the United States, specifically in the defence and military aspects,” the Saudi news agency (SPA) reported.

The two sides, according to SPA, emphasised the important role of this coordination “in maintaining international peace and security, and promoting stability in the region.”

The two sides also discussed recent developments in the region and the joint efforts made by the two countries for security and stability.

In statements to the American television network ABC, McKenzie said Saudi Arabia is still asking for American military assistance to deter Iran.

“I think they want reassurance that they’re going to be helped if they’re attacked by Iran and they want help against the continuing attacks,” McKenzie said.

“They’re under constant bombardment from Yemen, with a variety of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and small UAS (unmanned aerial systems) they’re very concerned about . We want to help them with that,” he added.

According to McKenzie, in the past three months Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen have fired about 100 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia.