Saudi prince sees Blinken in low-key US reception

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Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister met Wednesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a low-key visit to Washington focused partly on Yemen as the United States takes a greater distance with its ally.

Khalid bin Salman -- the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence says ordered the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi -- was the highest-ranking visitor from the kingdom to visit Washington since President Joe Biden took office.

The State Department said the prince met senior State Department officials Victoria Nuland and Derek Chollet and that Blinken participated in only part of the meeting -- similar to Prince Khalid's reception a day earlier at the Pentagon.

Blinken spoke with the prince about "efforts to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and transition to a political process in Yemen," where Huthi rebels have mounted a deadly offensive, the State Department said in a statement.

The group also discussed "the need for economic reform and humanitarian relief for the Lebanese people and other key bilateral issues, including human rights," a State Department statement said.

The prince also met Tuesday with Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, who discussed the "US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups," the White House said.

As Crown Prince Mohammed retains the title of defense minister for himself, it would not be a breach of protocol for Prince Khalid, his deputy, to lack full-fledged meetings with cabinet members.

But the lateness of the trip also reflects a hardening of US attitudes toward Saudi Arabia under Biden, who took office vowing to end the carte blanche to the kingdom granted by his predecessor Donald Trump, who visited Riyadh on his first foreign trip.

Biden declassified intelligence on the killing of Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after writing critically of the crown prince, and dialed down US support for the Saudi offensive in Yemen, which the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

Upsetting some fellow Democrats, Biden stopped short of imposing sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed over the Khashoggi killing, saying it was inevitable to deal with him.

Trump had condemned the killing of Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post, but said Saudi Arabia's prolific purchases of US weapons outweighed human rights concerns.

sct/ch

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