US Secretary of State Antony Blinken seeks common front with Saudi Arabia despite tensions with China and human rights issues.

The United States is not asking Saudi Arabia or “anyone” to “choose” between them and China, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Riyadh, seeking a common front with the powerful monarchy of Gulf despite many differences.

The American official was speaking at the end of a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, an important long-standing partner with which Washington has sometimes tense relations, particularly on the issue of human rights.

A great rival of Washington, China has strengthened its commercial and diplomatic relations in the Middle East, traditionally under American influence, Beijing having even supervised the recent rapprochement between the two great rivals in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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“We are not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China,” Antony Blinken told 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 the ties between his country and Beijing would “probably grow” while maintaining “a strong security partnership with the United States”.

“I do not subscribe to this zero-sum game. We are all capable of having multiple partnerships and commitments, as is the case with the United States”, insisted Fayçal ben Farhane.

Antony Blinken also sought to soften other points of disagreement, in particular on the Syrian regime, with which Saudi Arabia recently normalized relations after more than a decade of boycott during the civil war.

“Same goals”

According to Fayçal ben Farhane, this normalization is the “only way to respond to the humanitarian challenges” in Syria. The United States still considers normalization with the regime of Bashar al-Assad not “deserved” but “shares the same goals” as the Saudis, assured Mr. Blinken, referring to better access for humanitarian aid and the return to safety of Syrian refugees in their devastated country.

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Fayçal ben 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, Blinken had an “open and candid conversation” about human rights with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, according to a US official.

The two countries have above all sought to display their unity, in particular during a ministerial meeting of the coalition which is fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Announcing new aid of $148.7 million 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 did not repatriate the fighters and their relatives detained in prisons and informal camps in Syria and Iraq.

“Fully Invested”

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, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs 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 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 dollars and has, for the moment, collected half, according to a joint press release.

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IS “remains a dangerous terrorist actor”, indicated a French diplomatic source before the meeting. “The group is seeking to rebuild its bases, recruit, and release its prisoners.”

Wednesday in Riyadh, Antony Blinken had also met with ministers from the Gulf countries, assuring them that the United States remained “fully invested” in the region, contradicting the allegations of American disengagement in the Middle East.

During this visit to the kingdom, almost a year after that of President Joe Biden, he addressed a series of regional issues including the conflict in Sudan, where the United States and Saudi Arabia are offering their mediation.

2023-06-08 18:22:07

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