MR PATEL: Hey, everybody. Good afternoon and thank you so much for joining us today on this Friday for this trip preview call for Secretary Blinken’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This call will be on the record but it will be embargoed until the call’s conclusion. Joining me today to brief on this call is Deputy Assistant Secretary from our Near East Affairs Bureau for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim as well as Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ian McCray – Ian McCary. Sorry.
With that, I am going to turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Benaim to offer some thoughts, and then we of course will have some time for questions at the end. Dan, take us away.
MR BENAIM: Thanks so much, Vedant. Good afternoon, everybody. Next week, on June 6th through 8th, the Secretary of State will travel to Saudi Arabia. He will host with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan the Ministerial of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. That will be in Riyadh, as my colleague Ian McCary will momentarily discuss. That important effort provided an opportunity to engage across a wider range of issues.
The Secretary will hold another ministerial meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council and its foreign ministers, with whom the United States cooperates on a range of issues to promote regional security, stability, de-escalation, and integration in the Gulf, Middle East, and beyond. He will also consult with Saudi leaders on a range of bilateral, regional, and global priorities. Secretary Blinken and others in our government have been engaged intensively of late with Saudi counterparts on Sudan, among other issues, because of Saudi Arabia’s important role in the diplomacy there and in humanitarian and evacuation efforts.
More broadly, Saudi Arabia has been our strategic partner for eight decades across U.S. administrations. We continue to consult and collaborate on a wide range of issues. We have a great deal of work to do together. That includes ending the war in Yemen, where U.S. and Saudi support for UN-led peace efforts have helped facilitate now 14 months of dramatically reduced violence, increased humanitarian access, and the quietest period since the conflict began more than eight years ago. That includes Saudi Arabia’s support for Ukraine, which has included $410 million in critical assistance and high-profile bilateral visits from leaders of both countries. We also have newer areas of cooperation like tech and telecom, including Open RAN, our cutting-edge collaboration on 5G/6G technologies, green energy cooperation, and space.
The presence of a female Saudi astronaut – the first Muslim woman to visit space – launched in partnership with the United States, speaks to our shared ambition to broaden our work together into new areas, all of which, if successful, can deliver benefits that extend beyond our two countries.
We’re redoubling our emphasis on regional integration and structure, as National Security Advisor Sullivan recently explained, and whether through the Negev process or the GCC Interconnector linking Iraq with the Gulf and the rest of the region, or otherwise, we’re looking for ways to capitalize on the current moment, which is full of dialogue, newfound ties, mended ties, to encourage our neighbors’ efforts to connect to each other and the region’s efforts to connect to the wider world in important new ways.
We’re working to deepen business partnerships that benefit hundreds of thousands of American workers. The Boeing deal with Saudi Arabia announced in March, valued at nearly $37 billion, will support over 140,000 jobs across the United States. Our defense cooperation remains strong; our security relationship with Saudi Arabia remains a bedrock of our approach to regional defense and security and protecting the more than 80,000 U.S. citizens living and working in the kingdom.
I would also note that hundreds of thousands of Saudis have studied in – at U.S. universities over the past few decades. These educational and people-to-people ties are among the most important investments that we can make together in the future, and we will look to build on them.
As President Biden has noted, there is also our ongoing conversation regarding the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, which is a pillar of our engagement in the region and around the world.
I look forward to answering more of your questions shortly, but for now let me turn the meeting over to my colleague, Ian McCary, from the Counterterrorism Bureau.
MR MCCARY: Thanks a lot, Dan, and good afternoon, everybody. The coalition’s annual ministerial meeting will bring together on June 8th senior officials representing most of the 85 members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Secretary Blinken will be welcoming an 86th member of the Coalition when he opens the ministerial meeting in Riyadh next Thursday.
This event will be co-chaired by Secretary Blinken and his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. More than 30 foreign ministers and dozens of other senior officials are scheduled to attend this gathering in Riyadh, which underscores that the international community remains united in its determination to keep ISIS weak, fractured, and ultimately destroyed.
The nature of the threat is evolving, so the coalition is evolving its approach. The coalition’s integration of civilian-led counter-ISIS efforts in Africa and South and Central Asia will be highlighted as a primary line of effort for the coalition’s future
For example, we’re focusing in particular on Africa, where violent groups have adopted ISIS’s ideology and are attacking innocent people, destroying local economies, burning schools and healthcare centers, extorting communities, and preventing the creation of jobs. The coalition is working with African governments to build the counterterrorism capabilities so they can defend their people and create conditions for stability and economic development.
Secretary Blinken will preside over high-level meetings focused on countering ISIS in Africa where leaders will review assessments about the ISIS threat from our African partners and identify gaps that donor members can help fill.
The coalition is also working with partners in Central Asia to help them find and stop terrorists and prevent the spread of ISIS from Afghanistan. Strengthening cooperation in the region will be a key line of effort for the coalition in the coming years, and we’re pleased to note that several Central Asian nations that aren’t members of the coalition will be sending representatives to the ministerial to join Secretary Blinken and our team in these discussions.
For Syria and Iraq, the mission has changed significantly. It was a major military campaign, but that phase is over. ISIS no longer controls any territory there. But we still have major humanitarian issues to address in Syria and Iraq. And in Riyadh, the coalition partners will pledge hundreds of millions of dollars to support community-level stabilization projects.
A major focus is the al-Hol camp, where we need to get as many residents as possible out of the camp and back to their home countries and improve services, education, health, housing, and sanitation for those who can’t go home yet.
Last year, the coalition raised $445 million to support stabilization needs for Iraq and Syria. The Secretary will announce a significant new U.S. contribution this year, and we’ve been talking a lot with our partners in hopes of exceeding the number we raised last year.
I will pause there to leave time for questions. Thanks.
MR PATEL: Thanks so much. Operator, could you offer instructions again on how to get in the queue to ask a question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You can withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command. And if you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before the pressing the numbers. Again, if you have a question, please press 1-0 at this time. And one moment for our first question.
MR PATEL: Thanks so much. Let’s first go to the line of Elizabeth Hagedorn from Al-Monitor.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call today. Will Secretary Blinken have any engagements with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit, and will he be seeking any commitments from the Saudis on human rights? Thanks.
MR PATEL: Before I turn it over to Dan to speak to the broader question, I would – there will of course be additional updates and adjustments and news as it relates to the Secretary’s schedule but don’t have any specific additional engagements to share as it relates to the programming of his trip at this time, but let me turn it over to Dan to see if he has any additional things he wants to add.
MR BENAIM: Thanks, Vedant, and thanks, Elizabeth, for the question. I’m not going to preview the specifics of the Secretary’s private conversations, but human rights are a pillar of how this administration engages with countries around the world and in this region.
MR PATEL: Let’s next go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson with the Los Angeles Times.
QUESTION: Thank you. Dan, you mentioned a period of dialogue and new ties and mended ties in the region. You’re going to Saudi Arabia. How do you assess the likelihood or the – or any progress on normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel given the current tenor of this Israeli Government? Thanks.
MR BENAIM: Thanks so much, Tracy. From the President on down, including the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor and others, the United States supports efforts to advance normalization of Arab states with Israel and build on the progress of the Abraham Accords, including the eventual normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. You’ve seen us, and you will see us, seek out opportunities short of formal diplomatic normalization to pursue progress in addition. In that vein, when the President last year visited Jeddah, we welcomed Saudi Arabia’s decision to open its airspace to all countries, including to Israel. There is indeed a lot of speculation out there, but I don’t want to preview the Secretary’s private conversations and don’t have anything specific on this for you. Thank you.
MR PATEL: Let’s next go to the line of Olivia Gazis with CBS.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing the call. Would you mind explaining a bit more to what extent the Secretary plans to engage during this trip specifically on the U.S./Saudi-led talks on the conflict in Sudan, which, as I understand, were suspended yesterday. While he is in Jeddah, will he look to encourage, by virtue of his presence or publicly or otherwise, a restart of those talks? Thank you.
MR BENAIM: Thank you very much for the question. And first, let me say this is indeed something that we’ve been working on very closely with Saudi Arabia, especially over the last few months. And Saudi Arabia has played an invaluable role as the host of recent talks and a participant in efforts to try to silence the guns in Sudan and allow for humanitarian access. They have also played a really important role in the evacuation of international personnel from Sudan across the Red Sea to safety in Jeddah, which – for which we are very appreciative.
It’s clear that the initial ceasefire and extensions reached under the auspices of Jeddah talks have not been fully observed by either the RSF or the SAF, despite the best efforts of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others. We’ve seen serious violations on both sides. A ceasefire was designed to permit humanitarian aid delivery and restoration of central services to the Sudanese people. Some did reach an estimated, I guess, around 2 million people, but violations prevented the delivery to many more than that and blocked operations to restore its central services.
That led us, as a facilitator of the talks, to seriously question whether parties are ready to take immediate action to meet the obligations that they’ve undertaken on behalf of the Sudanese people. Once the parties make clear by their actions that they are serious about complying with the ceasefire, the United States and Saudi Arabia are ready to resume facilitation of suspended discussions to find a way to stop the fighting and improve humanitarian access for the benefit of the Sudanese people and regional security. And beyond that, I think I’d have to refer you to my colleagues in (inaudible).
MR PATEL: Let’s next go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask about the broad bilateral relationship between U.S. and Saudi, which for some time now I think at best has been uncomfortable for a number of reasons. There are disagreements on a number of issues, and we’ve seen as a result Saudi pursue its own regional policy because it believes the U.S. is less interested in the region. We’ve also seen China and Russia trying to expand their influence in the region as well.
So I guess I’m wondering what is the vision and strategy from the U.S. side on how to steady this relationship. And in terms of specific issues, I’m wondering if there is going to be a conversation or an effort on the U.S. side to perhaps try to gain some influence with the Saudis when it comes to the oil prices. Thanks.
MR BENAIM: Thanks so much, Humeyra. On the first question, as I think was clear from my opening remarks, there’s just a tremendous amount of work that we’re trying to do – Yemen, Sudan, bilateral work, commercial work, educational work, close counterterrorism cooperation, defense and security, regional diplomacy. We’re focused on an affirmative agenda here and the great deal of work that our countries can do together, and the widespread benefits that that can bring.
And I think what you’ll see on this trip is a vision of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that’s both rooted in our historic mainstays of cooperation in areas like defense and security and counterterrorism, includes ongoing important regional diplomacy when it comes to Yemen and Sudan, and looks for opportunities for regional de-escalation and regional integration. Also looks forward, as both of our countries are attempting to do, to areas of new possibility economically, technologically, and otherwise – 5G/6G being just one example, along with space cooperation.
But there are many others, too, and that’s something where the relationship reflects the evolving priority of the parties. We have longstanding economic and commercial ties, and those persist to the benefit of the people on both sides. And as I said, we have ongoing conversations about human rights, which are part of our larger conversation.
So hopefully that answers some of your question as far as our vision of what we’re hoping to achieve. I see that there are immense possibilities in each of these areas, and when it comes to the region, one of the very best things we can do is to make sure that our bilateral partnerships are strong and up to date and reflect our priorities, and that the region understands that the United States is a strong player that is in the region to stay and, as President Biden made clear when he visited Saudi Arabia about a year ago, that we won’t leave a vacuum for other competitors to fill. And that’s one more benefit of an engagement like this, is that it helps shore up the bilateral relationships that ultimately are the underpinning of U.S. strength in the region and U.S. enduring influence.
MR PATEL: Let’s next go to Ellen Knickmeyer with the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Yeah. Relatedly to the last question, does the Secretary have any message to deliver to Saudi Arabia? You mentioned the U.S. isn’t going to leave a vacuum for competitors to fill. Is there anything that – any kind of message that the Secretary wants to deliver to Saudi Arabia about its outreach to Chinese and Russian defense firms? And is the U.S. satisfied that there are guardrails in place, that in that outreach, U.S. defense industry security secrets are being protected?
MR BENAIM: Thanks for the essay question. I think that we’re engaged in constant dialogue with the leaders of Saudi Arabia about a wide range of geopolitical issues of import to both our countries and the world and international security. And in the case of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, one that has ongoing rippling consequences to the global economy, to access of food around the world, and, frankly, to regional security due to Russia’s increasingly close security and defense relationship with Iran, which is an issue of concern to many of us.
So we very much have a robust, ongoing conversation with Saudi Arabia about the issue of Russia and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. We were pleased to see that the Saudi foreign minister earlier this year make a visit to Kyiv and see the country for himself and the ongoing wartime effort there, and pledge $410 million of Saudi assistance, which has begun to be delivered to the benefit of the Ukrainian people. We were pleased to see President Zelenskyy invited to the – by Saudi Arabia to take part in Arab League meetings, where he had a chance to meet heads of state from across the region. These were constructive developments. The conversation regarding Russia is ongoing.
China is an issue that we talk about with countries all over the world. It’s one of the most – the PRC is one of the most consequential states in the international system, and it’s certainly a topic of U.S. engagement, as is clear in our National Security Strategy and elsewhere. We know that countries have relations with China and trade with China, as we do. Our goal is not to force countries to choose but to present a choice and, where possible, to make sure that the United States and our partners and allies are presenting the most compelling option, and to make sure that our partners very well understand our perspective and our sense of the terrain. And as I mentioned, as President Biden has said, we will not leave a vacuum for our strategic competitors in this region.
So while I don’t want to preview the specifics of this – of the Secretary’s private conversations, these are topics that come up with countries around the world and have certainly been topics of intensive consultation with Saudi Arabia.
MR PATEL: And I think we got time for one final question, so let’s go to Ed Wong of The New York Times.
QUESTION: Hello. Can you tell us whether there will be any discussion with Arab partners, Saudi Arabia or others, on the administration’s continuing efforts to try and get Iran to re-enter some form of a nuclear deal? And what is your assessment of whether the warming diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran might have an effect on that?
MR BENAIM: Ed, thanks so much. I don’t have anything specific on the first part of your question, which – could you repeat your – actually, could you repeat the first part of your question? Sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah, just whether on this trip Secretary Blinken and other State Department officials will have discussions with Saudi officials or other Arab officials on the administration’s ongoing efforts to try and get Iran to re-enter a nuclear deal.
MR BENAIM: Yeah, I’m sorry, I have nothing for you on that. I would have to refer you back to recent comments by U.S. officials on that.
And as to your second question about Saudi-Iran, as our senior officials have said, any efforts that help to end the war in Yemen and to de-escalate tensions in the region are welcome, and this has been a topic of ongoing effort across the region and will – it remains a topic of ongoing conversation with Saudi Arabia, how best to use the current moment to ensure that we see the changes that we’re looking for and ensure that regional de-escalation persists in a way that is in our interests, in our shared interests.
MR PATEL: All right, and thanks so much, everybody, for joining us today. Again, this call is on the record and embargoed until the call’s conclusion, which will be momentarily. Thank you all for joining and we’ll talk to you again very soon.