DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said after meeting with the visiting U.S. secretary of state on Thursday that while the kingdom would welcome U.S. aid in building its civilian nuclear program, “there are others that are bidding.”
Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was responding to a question about recent news reports that Saudi Arabia is asking for U.S. aid in building its own nuclear program in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
“It’s no secret that we are developing our domestic civilian nuclear program and we would very much prefer to be able to have the U.S. as one of the bidders,” he said. “Obviously we would like to build our program with the best technology in the world.”
Prince Faisal went on to say that normalization with Israel would have “limited benefits” without “finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people.” He did not say whether the nuclear issue is linked to normalization.
The exchange came at the end of a two-day visit to the kingdom in which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with senior Saudi officials, including the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and co-hosted a meeting of the global coalition fighting the Islamic State group.
The United States has been forced to recalibrate its decades-long alliance with Saudi Arabia as the oil-rich kingdom seeks to transform itself into a global player untethered from Washington.
Blinken, appearing at the press conference alongside the foreign minister, said expanding Israel’s normalization with Arab countries — a process known as the Abraham Accords — remains an American “priority.” He did not comment on the nuclear issue.
Saudi Arabia, which has taken the first steps toward a rudimentary nuclear program, has long viewed the far more advanced program of its archrival Iran with suspicion. The crown prince said in 2018 that if Iran ever builds a nuclear weapon, the kingdom will do so as well, adding to fears of a potential nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East.
Under the crown prince, the oil-rich kingdom has embarked on a massive economic and social transformation aimed at reducing its dependence on oil and attracting commerce, investment and tourism. In recent years the kingdom has lifted a ban on women driving, sidelined its once-feared religious police and begun hosting concerts, raves and visiting celebrities — all of which was unthinkable a decade ago, when it was best known internationally for its ultra-conservative Islamic rule.
The Saudis have meanwhile launched wide-ranging diplomatic efforts to wind down their war in Yemen, resolve a crisis with Qatar, restore relations with archrival Iran and welcome Syria's President Bashar Assad back into the Arab League after a 12-year boycott.
The flurry of diplomacy has included outreach to U.S. foes like Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who spoke with the crown prince by phone late Wednesday, and Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, who visited Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince shortly before Blinken's arrival.
The Saudis have also resisted U.S. pressure to bring down oil prices as they seek revenues to fund what they refer to as “gigaprojects,” including a $500 billion futuristic city under construction on the Red Sea.
The kingdom is also hard at work transforming itself into a global power in the world of sports, attracting soccer superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to its local clubs with lavish contracts and entering into a commercial merger with the PGA tour.
The Saudis say they are pursuing their own national interests in a world increasingly defined by great power competition. In addition to improving relations with Washington's foes, the Saudis have also resolved a spat with Canada and invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a close Western ally, to address an Arab League summit last month.
But they appear hesitant to proceed with normalizing relations with Israel at a time when it is led by the most right-wing government in its history, and when tensions have soared with the Palestinians. The Saudis have repeatedly called for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, territories Israel seized in the 1967 war — something that is inconceivable under Israel's current leadership.
Critics say Saudi Arabia's diplomatic efforts and its push into international sports are aimed at repairing the kingdom's image after the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist. U.S. intelligence concluded that Prince Mohammed likely approved the operation carried out by Saudi agents — allegations he denies.
Critics also point to an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in recent years, with authorities jailing everyone from liberal women's rights activists to ultra-conservative Islamists, and even targeting Saudis living in the United States.
Blinken said “human rights are always on the agenda” and that he had raised “specific cases,” but did not say whether any progress had been made on the release of detainees or the lifting of travel bans on prominent activists.
Earlier in the day, Blinken co-hosted a meeting of foreign ministers from the global coalition battling the Islamic State group during which he announced nearly $150 million in new U.S. funding for stabilization efforts in Syria and Iraq. The extremist group no longer controls any territory, but its affiliates still carry out attacks across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, as the Islamic State group is also known, includes more than 80 countries and continues to coordinate action against the extremists, who at their height controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq. Blinken said the U.S. pledge is part of new funding amounting to more than $600 million.
Blinken did not specify, but U.S. aid to Syria is expected to flow through Kurdish allies, the United Nations or international aid groups, as the U.S. and other Western countries maintain sanctions on Assad’s government.