William Burns, President Joe Biden’s CIA director, had an unannounced meeting last month with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a means of repairing relations with the Middle East partner, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Citing the WSJ report, for which the CIA declined to comment initially, Burns and Salman conducted talks in mid-April in the Saudi Arabia coastal city of Jeddah.
The meeting came at a time when tensions between the United States and the Saudis have become somewhat strained, due to a variety of issues: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the reported revitalization of the Iran nuclear deal, the war in Yemen and of course, oil production.
Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, has studied Arabic and held postings in the Middle East. During the Obama administration, Burns reportedly helped lead secret talks with Iran that led to a multi-nation accord in 2015, thus limiting Tehran’s nuclear development “in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.”
And Mohammed bin Salman, 36, runs Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day activities for his father, 86-year-old King Salman.
“It was a good conversation, better tone than prior U.S. government engagements,” said an unnamed U.S. official familiar with the meeting, according to the WSJ.
While campaigning for president in the run-up to the 2020 election, then-candidate Biden criticized the Saudi kingdom for its human rights stances, along with the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said in a Democratic presidential debate back then.
Then, in 2021, Biden released a secret U.S. intelligence assessment saying that Mohammed bin Salman approved Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
More than two dozen Saudis have reportedly been sought by Turkish officials over the killing.
Mohammed bin Salman has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s killing and has subsequently asked the U.S. to no longer discuss the matter in his presence.
It would likely benefit the Biden administration to be on better terms with the Saudis, in lieu of 40-year inflation highs that include peak surges at the gas pump for Americans.
According to the WSJ, “several” U.S. officials have visited the Saudi kingdom in the past year to mend fences and address Saudi concerns about security threats from Iran and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But with “Biden opposed to any broad concessions to the Saudis, the officials have acknowledged making only modest progress,” the WSJ reports.
The well-traveled Burns has made at least 15 trips abroad, including a “secret visit to Kabul” last August to meet with the Taliban’s top figure, according to the Journal.
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