The White House has announced that United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Saudi leaders in Jeddah to discuss peace efforts in the Middle East.
But Thursday’s read-out made no mention of a possible normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a US priority in the region.
The meeting instead centred on “bilateral and regional matters”, the White House said, including initiatives “for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous and stable Middle East”.
Nevertheless, Sullivan’s visit coincides with an ongoing effort under US President Joe Biden to establish relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two longtime adversaries.
Warming ties with Saudi crown prince
In attendance at Thursday’s meeting was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has served as prime minister since 2022.
Due to King Salman’s failing health, the crown prince has long been considered the kingdom’s de facto ruler, even prior to his appointment as prime minister.
Sullivan previously visited with bin Salman in May, as the two discussed greater ties between the Middle East and India. And last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with bin Salman in Jeddah, as part of warming relations with the crown prince.
Bin Salman remains a controversial figure in the US, due to his association with the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other alleged human rights abuses.
Biden had previously disavowed the Saudi government on the presidential campaign trail, citing Khashoggi’s assassination.
“We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said during a 2019 Democratic debate.
But in the years since taking office as president, the Democratic leader has warmed to bin Salman, continuing the US’s close ties with the Saudi kingdom.
Biden himself visited bin Salman in Saudi Arabia last year, a move denounced by groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Biden’s new stance comes at a cost to the moral authority of the US,” Adam Coogle of HRW wrote. “It is also a devastating blow for independent Saudi dissidents and activists demanding a meaningful say in their country’s future.”
Path to peace in Yemen
Sullivan, meanwhile, used Thursday’s meeting to once again broach the topic of peace in Yemen, the site of a long-simmering civil war that erupted when Houthi forces took the capital in 2014.
Saudi Arabia was among the Arab nations to intervene in the conflict, stoking tensions with its regional rival, Iran, which provided military supplies to the Houthis.
But in March, China brokered an agreement for Iran and Saudi Arabia to rekindle their diplomatic relations and open embassies in each other’s countries, largely ending the tensions. The agreement also helped ease the conflict in Yemen between the Saudis and Houthis.
Hostilities have also subsided in Yemen since a United Nations-backed truce took effect in April 2022, though it has since expired. The truce allowed fuel shipments to resume in some parts of the country, as well as humanitarian and food deliveries.
Thursday’s White House statement said Sullivan “reviewed significant progress to build on the benefits of the truce in Yemen that have endured over the past 16 months and welcomed ongoing UN-led efforts to bring the war to a close”.
Questions about Israel normalisation
The rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has stirred hopes among US officials of a similar Saudi agreement being reached with Israel.
For years, the US has encouraged Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel, one of its closest allies in the region.
In 2020, under then-President Donald Trump, the US scored a victory in that pursuit with the Abraham Accords. Though the accords initially only established relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, other countries soon joined the normalisation agreement, including Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
The Biden administration has continued to foster Israel’s international ties. In June, Secretary Blinken told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that the US must play an “integral role in advancing” an Israeli rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.
“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Blinken explained.
But in spite of multiple US diplomatic visits, that goal faces significant hurdles. Saudi officials have previously adhered to the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and establish a Palestinian state before normalisation can occur.
Israel, though, has continued to expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank, where violence has hit a record high. The UN called 2022 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the territory, with 150 killed, and 2023 is on track to surpass that tally.
Nevertheless, in a speech before the US Congress last week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said he prayed for better relations with the Saudis.
“Israel thanks the United States for working towards establishing peaceful relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – a leading nation in the region and in the Muslim world. We pray for this moment to come.”
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