Last month , As part of a regional tour, CIA Director William Burns quietly met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, a port city in western Saudi Arabia. The unusual meeting, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is the first known meeting between a top US spy and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler — and according to three informed sources, the latest attempt by top US officials to plead with Saudi Arabia over oil amid rising US gas prices. Two sources also told The Intercept, that on the table were Saudi arms purchases from China.
President Joe Biden has so far refused to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, as he is known, because of the crown prince’s role in ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But in February, Biden made an effort to begin mending the relationship with the kingdom, asking King Salman to increase the country’s oil production in exchange for US military support for its “defense” against the Houthis in Yemen. According to a Saudi statement to the call, Biden was denied. Although Burns again requested an increase in oil production last month, Saudi Arabia announced last week that it would stick to its production plan, once again rejecting the US request.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on Burns’ flights. The Intercept’s sources – a US intelligence official, two sources with links to the US intelligence community, a source close to members of the Saudi royal family, and a think tank official – were interviewed for this story speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. .
The meeting was also an opportunity to bring up a topic of great concern to Washington: Riyadh’s growing relationship with China. In addition to Burns’ request about oil, the CIA director also asked Saudi Arabia not to pursue arms purchases from China, according to two sources close to U.S. intelligence.
Saudi Arabia’s public overtures to Beijing — most notably, the exploration of the possibility of selling its oil for the Chinese currency, the yuan — have caused consternation in Washington. This week, in Senate testimony, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned of efforts by China and Russia to “try to make progress with our partners around the world,” citing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as examples.
The source close to the US intelligence said that what has not been known publicly is that the Saudi government plans to import ballistic missiles later this month from China as part of a secret program dubbed “Temsah”. (The other source linked to US intelligence confirmed that the discussion relates to arms sales with China.)
The sources said Burns also requested the release of several prominent Saudi royals who had been detained by Mohammed bin Salman, including Mohammed bin Salman’s cousin, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Mohammed bin Nayef, as he is known, was the heir to the throne before he was overthrown by Crown Prince Mohammed in 2017. Because Mohammed bin Nayef is a close partner of US intelligence, the Biden administration has lobbied for his release amid allegations of torture.
Reliance on a CIA director to conduct a high-level diplomatic engagement of this nature is highly unusual, though it does offer at least one big advantage: secrecy. The source close to the US intelligence said that Burns’ presence was a way to try to repair the fraught relationship between Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials in the Biden administration. Last year, when Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the Khashoggi murder, Mohammed bin Salman yelled at him, suggesting that the United States could forget about its request to increase oil production, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
The source also said that Burns’ meeting with Mohammed bin Salman was one of several meetings with leaders in the region, including in Qatar, the UAE and Oman. (A senior think-tank official close to the Biden administration confirmed that Burns was traveling throughout the Middle East.) Burns’ meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed echoed the theme of his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, urging him to stop warming up with China. , in special reference to the construction of a Chinese military base in the UAE. Last year, the Biden administration reportedly warned the UAE that China was building a military facility in a UAE port and that its construction could jeopardize their relations. In the case of Saudi Arabia, US intelligence has assessed that the country is working with China to locally manufacture its ballistic missiles – raising concerns about starting a regional arms race.
“The different thing about this is that the Saudis are now looking to import completed missiles,” the source close to US intelligence said.
“Burns has been doing a lot of heavy diplomatic work, and it’s horrific.”
Burns has been criticized for his diplomatic management, which is supposed to be handled by diplomats at the State Department. Last year, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Burns was reported to have been in the Middle East, where he met with senior Israeli and Palestinian government officials. Shortly thereafter, Burns secretly met in Kabul with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar. Just last week, Burns met with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, urging him not to interfere in his country’s elections.
“Burns has been doing a lot of diplomatic heavy lifting, which is horrible,” a US intelligence official close to the administration told The Intercept, denouncing what he called “further castration of the State Department.” This alarmed diplomats at Foggy Bottom, who had hoped Biden would make good on his campaign pledge to enable diplomacy after years of neglect by the Trump administration.
Even concerns about Burns’ role in diplomacy and the marginalization of the State Department have come from figures such as Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Intelligence professionals can coerce and threaten without the constraints of diplomacy,” Rubin wrote in a recent article for the Washington Examiner. “They are not there to discuss and formulate foreign policy.” The Biden administration is currently without an ambassador in Saudi Arabia, having announced only last month its intention to nominate diplomat Michael Ratney for the position.