U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched his national security adviser Jake Sullivan to Saudi Arabia on Thursday for talks with the kingdom’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the White House pushes for a normalization of relations between the country and Israel.
The White House in a brief statement said that Sullivan arrived in Jeddah on Thursday for talks with the crown prince, who is often referred to by his initial MbS, and other Saudi officials. The wide-ranging talks covered initiatives to “advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East,” and efforts to find a permanent end to the years-long conflict between the Saudis and Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen, according to the White House.
Sullivan and the prince also discussed the Biden administration’s hopes to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, according to a White House National Security Council official familiar with the matter. The official was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
For its part, the kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency acknowledged the meeting, saying only that the two sides “discussed the Saudi-U.S. strategic relations and ways to enhance them in various fields, in addition to the latest regional and international developments of mutual concern.”
The kingdom released no images of the meeting, which saw Saudi Arabia’s defence and energy ministers attend, along with the head of its Public Investment Fund. The U.S. has been trying to get Riyadh to end its war in Yemen while also trying to lobby it over global oil prices, without much success.
The effort to strengthen the historically fraught relationship between the Middle East’s two significant powers comes after the Trump administration helped usher in the “Abraham Accords,” normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
A normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthy Arab state, has the potential to reshape the region and boost Israel’s standing in historic ways. But brokering such a deal is a heavy lift as the kingdom has said it won’t officially recognize Israel before a resolution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sullivan’s visit comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to the kingdom last month in part to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
During Blinken’s recent visit, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that normalization with Israel would have “limited benefits” without “finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people.”
The Saudis have also shown hesitance to proceed with normalizing relations with Israel at a time when it is led by the most right-wing government in its history, and when tensions have soared with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Israel remains mired in a political crisis over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken its judiciary, a move which has unleashed the biggest protests in the country’s history.
The Saudis have repeatedly called for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, territories Israel seized in the 1967 war.
Saudi Arabia also has pushed increasingly for a nuclear co-operation deal that includes America allowing it to enrich uranium in the kingdom – something that worries non-proliferation experts, as spinning centrifuges open the door to a possible weapons program.
Prince Mohammed already has said the kingdom would pursue an atomic bomb if Iran had one, potentially creating a nuclear arms race in the region as Tehran’s program continues to advance closer to weapons-grade levels.