Congress Pushes Back Against Trump’s Erratic Saudi Friends

The new U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John Abizaid, started work in Riyadh in early May. He’s taken on a difficult job, with U.S.-Saudi relations in crisis and with various parts of the U.S. government in fierce disagreement about how to deal with their dictator partners in the Gulf.

While the State Department website trumpets “…the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a strong relationship based upon mutual respect and common interests,” but they really haven’t. It’s not true either that “the vibrancy of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, based on multifaceted interests in the political, economic, business and humanitarian fields, remains secure.”

In fact, the Trump Administration is following a long tradition of previous administrations in siding with dictatorships from Iran to Chile to South Africa to Indonesia while mistakenly telling the world—and itself—that these were stable bets. 

Saudi Arabia is a terrible ally for the United States, causing virtually constant embarrassment and concern. Hearings this week in the House of Representatives about U.S. policy in the Gulf focused on the faltering relationship with Saudi Arabia, as members of Congress insistently questioned an administration official over Saudi Arabia’s failure of human rights, its refusal to hold the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi accountable, and its immoral and incompetent conduct of its war in Yemen.

Last month President Trump vetoed a congressional resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have become a major political fight between Congress and the White House. The U.S. Congressional Committee on Oversight and Reform is alarmed at March 2019 news that the president intended to sell “sensitive nuclear technology” to Saudi Arabia. Congress is starting to push back hard. Leading critical voices include Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who introduced bipartisan legislation in February with Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and others to block Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) also introduced legislation with bipartisan support to stop all arms sales to the Saudi government.

And Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) are sponsoring another major bipartisan bill to suspend arms transfers to Saudi Arabia in an effort to end the war in Yemen, and to impose sanctions on the Saudi government for human rights violations—including the killing of Khashoggi. More legislation is imminent.

Last week Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) raised the longstanding issue of why Saudi Arabia has not stopped using extremist, antisemitic textbooks in it schools.

Other members of Congress publicly question why the administration is failing to respond to a request from Congress for a report on whether Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is personally responsible for the killing of Khashoggi.

Some asked what the Trump Administration is doing about the torture and continuing detention of American citizen Walid Fitaihi. Saudi authorities have also targeted and jailed rights activists who are graduates of U.S. universities, including Mohamed Al Qahtani and Azziza al Yousef. Al Yousef’s son Salah al-Haider is an American citizen, and was arrested last month in Saudi Arabia, as was another U.S. citizen, writer and physician Bader el-Ibrahim.

The White House insists that Saudi Arabia is a key ally in the struggle against Iranian terrorism, but Saudi Arabia itself remains a major supplier of violent ideology, exporting extremist Salafism and Wahabism. In 2017 the overwhelming majority of the 61 groups designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department were Wahabi-inspired and/or Saudi funded. In 2015 the German Intelligence Service warned that the Saudi government—encouraged by its perception of unconditional support from the United States—was in danger of destabilizing the Middle East.

U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia isn’t a question of either having an unconditional relationship or a complete breakdown in relations. The choice is not between plying the Saudi dictatorship with arms without any real conditionality or having no contact with them at all.  That’s the false binary presented by some U.S. government officials. Asking for behavioral change from the Saudi authorities is a perfectly sensible policy for the United States, one which current and previous administrations have been reluctant to adopt.

There were also further congressional hearings last week about growing Russian influence in the Middle East. In 2017 King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Russia, when Putin hosted him for talks at the Kremlin. The trip led to Saudi Arabia buying Russian weapons worth billions of dollars. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) noted during the hearings that “In Saudi Arabia the Trump Administration has embraced a government that has had a journalist hacked to death,” and that “in the absence of a strategic vision by the administration Congress must step up…and set forth a path for the Middle East.”

Cicilline is right that Congress should take this responsibility. It’s done it before. When the United States wanted to redefine—not break—its relationship with apartheid South Africa, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Sanctions Act of 1986 with bipartisan support over President Reagan’s veto. It neither gave the South African regime everything it wanted nor cut off relations with it. It instead restated what the future relationship should be, declaring that “policy toward the Government of South Africa shall be designed to bring about reforms in that system of government that will lead to the establishment of a nonracial democracy.” A similar declaration by Congress now on democracy for Saudi Arabia would be useful.

By Brian Dooley

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