CIA chief met Saudi crown prince last month in push to mend ties

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CIA Director William Burns made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia last month to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. and Saudi officials said, as the Biden administration pushes to repair ties with a key Middle East security partner.

The visit took place in mid-April in the coastal city of Jeddah, where the Saudi leadership spent much of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. While details of what the two men discussed weren't available, recent sources of U.S.-Saudi tension include oil production, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Iran nuclear deal and the war in Yemen.

"It was a good conversation, better tone than prior U.S. government engagements," one American official said of the top U.S. spy's meeting with Prince Mohammed, who runs Saudi Arabia's daily affairs on behalf of his 86-year-old father, King Salman.

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Mr. Burns is a former deputy secretary of state who studied Arabic and held postings in the Middle East, as well as having prior experience in covert diplomacy. During the Obama administration, he helped lead secret talks with Iran that led to a multination accord in 2015 to limit Tehran's nuclear development in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Mr. Burns traveled to Saudi Arabia with the relationship between Washington and Riyadh at its lowest point in decades, with then presidential candidate Joe Biden saying in 2019 that the kingdom should be treated like a pariah over human-rights issues such as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A secret U.S. intelligence assessment, released last year by Mr. Biden, determined that Prince Mohammed approved an operation to capture or kill Mr. Khashoggi, which led to his 2018 murder and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at Kansai airport in Izumisano city, Osaka prefecture, on June 27, 2019 ahead of the G20 Osaka Summit. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images) (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images) / Getty Images)

Prince Mohammed has denied involvement in the killing and told Mr. Biden's national security adviser in September that he never wanted to discuss the matter again, The Wall Street Journal has reported. Since then, Saudi Arabia has rebuffed U.S. requests to pump more oil to tame prices and undercut Moscow's war finances, keeping in line with Russian interests.

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A spokeswoman for the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on Mr. Burns's travels. The Saudi authorities didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Political fissures between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have deepened since Russia invaded Ukraine, senior officials from both governments have said. The risk for the U.S. is that Riyadh will align more closely with China and Russia, or at least remain neutral on issues of vital interest to Washington, as it has on Ukraine.

The White House has previously reiterated that the U.S. is committed to supporting Saudi Arabia's territorial defense, and a Saudi official at the kingdom's Washington Embassy has said the relationship with the U.S. remains strong.

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Multiple U.S. officials have visited the kingdom repeatedly in the past year to try to heal the breach, with an eye to addressing Saudi concerns about security threats from Iran and the Houthi rebels that Iran backs in Yemen. Yet with Mr. Biden opposed to any broad concessions to the Saudis, the officials have acknowledged making only modest progress.

Kirsten Fontenrose, who oversaw Gulf affairs at the National Security Council under former President Donald Trump, said the White House is trying to identify an administration official whom the Saudis will listen to.

"They're looking around for where the relationship is strongest and engaging there," said Ms. Fontenrose, who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

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Since taking over the nation's spy agency last year, Mr. Burns has made at least 15 trips abroad, including a secret visit to Kabul last August to meet with the Taliban's top figure. He has since played a key role in the Biden administration's response to the war in Ukraine, visiting Russia last November to warn President Vladimir Putin of the consequences of an invasion.

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