The United States does not ask Saudi Arabia or "anyone" to "choose" between them and China, said Thursday, June 8, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Riyadh, seeking to make a common front with the powerful Gulf monarchy despite many differences.
The US official was speaking at the end of a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, a long-standing important partner with which Washington has sometimes tense relations, particularly on the issue of human rights.
'A strong security partnership'
A major rival of Washington, China has strengthened its trade and diplomatic relations in the Middle East, traditionally under US influence, Beijing has even overseen the recent rapprochement between the region's two major rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia. "We are not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China," Antony Blinken said at a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhane. "We're just trying to demonstrate the benefits of our partnership," he said.
His Saudi counterpart confirmed that ties between his country and Beijing would "probably grow" while maintaining "a strong security partnership with the United States." "I don't buy into this zero-sum game. We are all capable of having multiple partnerships and commitments, as is the case with the United States," said Faisal bin Farhane. Antony Blinken has also sought to soften other points of difference, including over the Syrian regime, with which Saudi Arabia recently normalized relations after more than a decade of boycott during the civil war.
An "open and sincere conversation"
According to Faisal bin Farhane, this normalization is the "only way to respond to humanitarian challenges" in Syria. The United States still considers normalization with the regime of Bashar al-Assad undeserved" but "shares the same goals" as the Saudis, Blinken said, referring to better access for humanitarian aid and the safe return of Syrian refugees to their devastated country. Faisal bin Farhane also refused any normalization with Israel without resolving the Palestinian issue and rejected "any pressure" on the issue of human rights. Upon his arrival on Tuesday, Anthony Blinken had an "open and sincere conversation" on human rights with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, according to a US official.
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The two countries have mainly sought to show their unity, including at a ministerial meeting of the coalition fighting the Islamic State group (IS). Announcing $148.7 million in new aid to a stabilization fund in Syria and Iraq, the United States joined Saudi Arabia in calling on Western countries to repatriate foreign jihadist fighters. The head of Saudi diplomacy called on rich countries to take their "responsibilities", judging "absolutely unacceptable" that they have not repatriated fighters and their relatives detained in prisons and informal camps in Syria and Iraq.
Since the end in 2019 of the "caliphate" in Syria, where it was established in 2014, this subject remains a very sensitive issue for many countries. Present at the meeting, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna assured that Paris had proceeded, "over the last 18 months to the repatriation of 144 minors accompanied by 47 mothers". She also announced that the France would allocate, in 2023, 86.5 million euros for "humanitarian and stabilization actions in Iraq and Syria". In total, the coalition, created in 2014, hopes to raise some $600 million and has, so far, raised half, according to a joint statement.
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IS "remains a dangerous terrorist actor," a French diplomatic source said before the meeting. "The group is seeking to replenish its bases, recruit, and release its prisoners." On Wednesday in Riyadh, Antony Blinken also met with ministers from the Gulf countries assuring them that the United States remained "fully invested" in the region, contradicting allegations of American disengagement in the Middle East. During his visit to the kingdom, nearly a year after that of President Joe Biden, he addressed a range of regional issues including the conflict in Sudan, where the United States and Saudi Arabia are offering to mediate.