CIA chief made secret trip to visit Saudis to thaw chilly relations
CIA Director William Burns made a trip to Saudi Arabia last month to meet with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in an attempt to patch relations with the key Middle East oil producer and security partner
May 5, 2022 8:50am
Updated: May 5, 2022 11:54am
CIA Director William Burns made a trip to Saudi Arabia last month to meet with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in an attempt to patch relations with the key Middle East oil producer and security partner.
The visit took place in Jeddah, where the Saudi royals spent most of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“It was a good conversation, better tone than prior U.S. government engagements,” an American official familiar with the trip told The Wall Street Journal.
Details of the discussion were not available, but the topics likely included recent sources of U.S.-Saudi tension like oil production, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Iran nuclear deal.
The Biden administration has been looking for ways to repair relations with Saudi Arabia after a shaky start with its leadership.
Prince Mohammad, 36, runs the country’s daily affairs on behalf of his 86-year-old father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, and wants to be acknowledged as its de facto ruler and future king. However, President Joe Biden had not spoken to the crown prince as of April, bypassing him to speak directly with the king.
Reports say that these tensions came to a boil last September when Prince Mohammad ended up shouting at Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, for raising the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their first meeting. A report released by U.S. intelligence in Feb. 2021 concluded that the crown prince ordered the operation that led to his murder and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Prince Mohammad has denied any involvement in the killing and told Sullivan he never wanted to discuss the matter again.
The rift between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia deepened with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the spike in oil prices that followed. The OPEC+ oil cartel sided with its member Russia, signaling it would not increase production to relieve the price of barrels of crude. Prince Mohammad and his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, both declined to take calls with Biden in March.
The Saudis were also concerned about the new administration’s support for Iran, such as its efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
Burns was likely chosen for his past experience as former deputy secretary of state and proficiency in Arabic. He has held postings in the Middle East and has prior experience with covert diplomacy, such as secret talks with Iran that led to a multination 2015 agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear development in exchange for relief from economic sanctions, according to WSJ.
“They’re looking around for where the relationship is strongest and engaging there,” Kirsten Fontenrose, who oversaw Gulf affairs at the National Security Council under former President Donald Trump, told WSJ.
This is not Burns’ first unannounced trip outside the country. He also made a secret visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, last August to meet with the Taliban and coordinate the U.S. withdrawal of troops.