Updated Apr 14, 2023 - World

Senior U.S. officials meet with MBS in Saudi Arabia in sign of improving relations

Biden Middle East adviser Brett McGurk meets Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on April 13. Photo: Handout/Saudi Foreign Ministry.

President Biden’s senior Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and U.S. envoy for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein traveled to Saudi Arabia this week for talks with senior Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the White House told Axios.

Why it matters: McGurk and Hochstein are the most senior U.S. officials to visit Saudi Arabia since a crisis erupted between the two countries after the Saudi-led decision to cut oil production last October. The visit signals relations between Washington and Riyadh are improving.

  • U.S. special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking also made the trip.

Driving the news: McGurk nd Hochstein arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday and met with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and discussed ways to enhance joint coordination and serve the interests of the two friendly countries, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said.

  • McGurk, Hochstein and Lenderking also met with MBS to discuss the efforts to end the war in Yemen, a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios.
  • The U.S. officials also met with other senior Saudi officials, including Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman.

What they are saying: The U.S. officials "emphasized the importance President Biden has long placed on ending" the conflict in Yemen, and "both sides welcomed their close coordination that led to a UN-mediated truce one year ago, and that has since helped forge conditions for a more enduring peace," the NSC spokesperson said.

  • McGurk, Hochstein and Lenderking also underscored the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s defense against threats from Yemen or elsewhere and emphasized the need for forging broader regional integration and stability through a combination of diplomacy, deterrence, and new investment and infrastructure initiatives, the spokesperson added.

The big picture: The U.S. officials discussed with their Saudi counterparts issues like energy security, clean energy cooperation, investment in the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), and cooperative Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) projects to support accessible 5G and 6G technologies, the NSC spokesperson said.

Between the lines: Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers announced that starting in May they will cut production by more than 1 million barrels a day. The cuts will continue until the end of the year.

  • The surprise move could lead to a rise in global oil prices, but unlike last October, the Biden administration’s response appeared to be measured.
  • White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters the Saudis notified the Biden administration in advance of the move and stressed that the U.S. “disagreed” with the decision.
  • Ahead of McGurk and Hochstein’s trip, White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday spoke on the phone with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and agreed "to accelerate contact between the Saudi and U.S. national security teams."

Flashback: Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been tense since the Biden administration assumed office.

  • When Biden visited Saudi Arabia last July, it seemed that both countries were making gradual progress toward improving relations.
  • But in October tensions escalated again when the Saudis led a move to decrease global oil production. The U.S. saw the move as a violation of the understanding it reached with Saudi Arabia ahead of Biden’s visit to the kingdom.
  • At the time, the White House announced it was “re-evaluating” relations with Saudi Arabia and canceled a missile defense security meeting with the Saudis and other Gulf countries.

What's happening: In recent months there has been slow improvement in the relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

  • The White House was pleased with the Saudi foreign minister's visit to Kyiv during which he announced an aid package for Ukraine — a move the Biden administration pushed for.
  • Other signs of improvement include an agreement on 5G technology between the countries and a multibillion-dollar Boeing deal that was announced recently.
  • The Biden administration also welcomed the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on resuming diplomatic relations and presented it as a move that coincided with the U.S. policy of regional de-escalation and the efforts to end the war in Yemen.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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