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Blinken arrives in Riyadh amid heightened Mideast tensions

February 5, 2024 at 3:39 pm

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he disembarks from his aircraft upon arrival in Riyadh from Abu Dhabi on October 14, 2023 [Jacquelyn Martin/Getty Images]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, his first stop in a wider tour of the Middle East as Washington tries to advance negotiations on a normalisation deal between the kingdom and Israel, as well as make progress on talks for the governance of post-war Gaza, Reuters has reported.

The top US diplomat’s fifth trip to the region since the Hamas incursion on 7 October comes at a perilous moment and amid retaliatory US air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The strikes were carried out in response to a drone strike last week in Jordan that killed three US soldiers and wounded dozens more.

Blinken is also set to visit Egypt, Qatar and Israel this week. He hopes to advance the Egypt- and Qatari-mediated discussions with Hamas to achieve a hostage deal.

In Riyadh, Blinken is expected to meet with the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud.

The veteran diplomat’s latest trip to the Middle East comes at a time that senior US officials describe as one of the most dangerous the region has seen in decades. The conflict has escalated as Iran-backed groups have fired on US forces in Iraq and Syria, while Yemen’s Houthis have attacked ships connected to Israel in the Red Sea. According to the Houthis, they are acting to impose an embargo on Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians, victims of Israeli genocide in the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, Blinken will try to reinforce the message that the Biden administration neither seeks war with Iran nor wants the conflict to spread further.

READ: China says it opposes violation of UN Charter, sovereignty after US strikes in Iraq, Syria

Iran has so far avoided any direct role in the conflict, even as it backs those militia groups. Washington has openly said it does not want war with Iran, despite criticism from Republicans in Congress, some of whom have advocated for attacks inside Iran. The Pentagon also believes that Tehran does not want war with the US.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan refused to be drawn on Sunday on whether the US might attack sites inside Iran. He said Washington did not seek a wider war in the region, but would continue to respond if attacked. There is no reason for the US campaign of retaliation, unfolding since Friday, to derail Washington’s conversations with Arab states and Israel on normalisation and post-war Gaza, said a senior US official.

More than 130 hostages are still held in Gaza, and their possible release by Hamas is among issues under discussion in the conversations mediated by Qatar and Egypt with the backing of the US, in return for a lengthy truce. While officials have noted some progress, they cautioned that gaps remain. Normalisation with Riyadh is the carrot to tempt Israel.

In Davos last month, Blinken said that Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbours were prepared to integrate Israel into the region, but they need to see a pathway to the creation of a Palestinian state. Conversations on who will govern post-war Gaza, how the Palestinian Authority might be reformed to possibly rule the enclave and security guarantees for Israel are now part of the same equation, the US official explained, adding that results on any or all of these points would require compromises from Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at odds with the Biden administration over the creation of an independent Palestinian state, saying he would not compromise on “full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River.”

READ: Biden puts pressure on Netanyahu to accept long truce in exchange for Saudi normalisation