DUBAI, United Arab Emirates >> Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that the U.S. would provide nearly $150 million in aid for areas in Syria and Iraq that were liberated from the Islamic State extremist group.
He spoke at a ministerial conference hosted by Saudi Arabia on combatting the group, which no longer controls any territory — but whose affiliates still carry out attacks across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS includes more than 80 countries and continues to coordinate action against the extremist group, which at its 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.
“Poor security and humanitarian conditions. Lack of economic opportunity. These are the fuel for the kind of desperation on which ISIS feeds and recruits,” he said in brief remarks at the opening of the conference, using a common acronym for the extremist group. “So we have to stay committed to our stabilization goals.”
Blinken did not specify, but U.S. aid to Syria is expected to flow through Kurdish allies, the U.N. or international aid groups, as the U.S. and other Western countries maintain sanctions on President Bashar Assad’s government.
Blinken co-hosted the conference as part of a two-day visit to the kingdom in which he met with senior Saudi officials, including the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Blinken also attended a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers.
The United States has been forced to recalibrate its decades-long alliance with Saudi Arabia as the kingdom seeks to transform itself into a global player untethered to Washington.
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 have taken to referring to as “gigaprojects,” like 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.
Critics say the diplomatic efforts and the 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.
The State Department said Blinken engaged in wide-ranging discussions with Saudi and other Arab officials, including on ending the war in Yemen, shoring up an oft-violated U.S.-Saudi cease-fire in Sudan, and reducing Israeli-Palestinian friction. It said he also brought up human rights concerns, but it was not clear if he had convinced the Saudis to release any prisoners or lift travel bans.
As a candidate, President Joe Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the Khashoggi killing, but he was forced to back down last year in the face of rising oil prices, eventually meeting with the crown prince and sharing a much-debated fist bump with him.