(CNN)The Biden administration hosted the most senior Saudi official to arrive in Washington since the White House distanced itself earlier this year from the kingdom and its defacto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a visit that may signal yet another recalibration in the fraught relationship.
Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, a prince and brother to Mohammed, has had meetings with Biden’s most senior national security officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The prince’s arrival hasn’t been without controversy, as some State Department officials have expressed frustration with the broad access he has been given, according to two sources familiar with the visit.
But as the administration struggles on a number of fronts — with a likely resurgence of Taliban violence in Afghanistan, the ongoing war in Yemen, faltering Iran talks and gas prices at seven-year highs as Americans hit the road to celebrate summer and post-quarantine freedom — Saudi Arabia’s role in all these areas becomes too important to ignore.
“Too many times, too many administrations, every president eventually gets mugged by reality on this and comes to the conclusion that as hard as it is to live with the Saudis as close partners, given the huge gap in values that exists between the two societies, it’s even much harder to have to deal with them as potential adversaries or as an unfriendly country,” said John Hannah, a senior fellow at Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “They just remain too important.”
Red carpet treatment
Bin Salman’s red carpet treatment marks a sharp change from February, when the administration released a report finding the Crown Prince directly responsible for approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; sanctioned dozens of Saudis tied to human rights abuses; and ended US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
That shift is generating some debate within the administration and leaving some State Department officials frustrated at the broad access being given to the 33-year-old prince, according to two sources familiar with the royal’s visit to the department.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday that he expected Blinken would “have a chance to take part in part of” a meeting with senior State Department officials and bin Salman.
As Blinken prepared to see the prince — who as a deputy defense minister would normally be too junior in rank to be meeting a secretary of state — their appointment was the subject of internal debate, the sources said. There was also some frustration on Tuesday when the Saudis canceled a dinner they had planned with Biden administration officials just hours before the gathering at the Saudi ambassador’s residence in DC, the sources said.
The Saudis told US officials they had to make calls back to Riyadh in advance of Wednesday’s meetings at the State Department, the source said. The Saudi embassy has not replied to CNN’s queries about the dinner or bin Salman’s plans to meet Blinken on Wednesday.
The prince’s visit wasn’t listed on Blinken’s public schedule, and his stay in Washington wasn’t announced in advance, perhaps an attempt to keep it discreet.
In February, Biden and other officials emphasized they were ending the coziness that marked the Trump administration’s ties to Saudi Arabia, and with it, a blind eye to the kingdom’s human rights abuses. But they also made clear th
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