Bad Press is Turning Congress’s Attention Back to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s stock has fallen on Capitol Hill since a hit squad close to the regime—likely on direct orders from the very top—murdered Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Nevertheless, and despite some unsuccessful attempts to end US involvement in the Saudi- and Emirati-led war in Yemen, Riyadh has managed to escape the ensuing eight months of negative press with no tangible threats to its relations with the United States.

Now, however, Riyadh is being exposed by another spate of unfavorable media reports and it is catching the attention of Congress once again. First, the Trump Administration opted to strip Congress of its oversight role and to proceed with 22 proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Predictably, this infuriated lawmakers—even those in Donald Trump’s own party—as the president continues to act unilaterally and in spite of Congress. Recent reports illustrated that one of those potential deals could result in Riyadh assuming the function of crafting parts of high-tech US bombs domestically, something that nearly every member of Congress, regardless of party, views as a bad idea. This, paired with another report detailing how the administration approved the transfer of nuclear technology information to Saudi Arabia only weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, illustrates to lawmakers that the administration still has no qualms about arming Riyadh and facilitating its development of potentially very dangerous technological capabilities, despite ample evidence that the kingdom is hardly a stabilizing force in the Middle East.

If that new information did not unnerve lawmakers enough, further reporting reveals that the Trump Administration knew that Saudi Arabia had advanced its ballistic missile program with help from the Chinese. What causes such discomfort for many is that the administration seems to have made no attempts to slow Riyadh’s pursuit of these ballistic missiles.

There is also the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the violence in Sudan. The Transitional Military Council (TMC) in Khartoum largely gets its legitimacy and financial backing from these two Gulf powers. In addition, recent reports illustrate that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi at least gave the TMC their blessing to crack down on Sudanese protesters—if not actually urging such repression. The resulting violence has left hundreds dead and wounded and the country risks spiraling into chaos. In totality, the reports are a stark reminder for those on Capitol Hill who are skeptical about Saudi Arabia’s policies that they may be correct in assuming that Riyadh is not the dependable ally the Trump Administration believes it to be. To many, Saudi Arabia is playing both fireman and arsonist in the region.

In the immediate future, Congress will try and block the administration from delivering on some or all of the arms deals (as detailed below). Moving forward, lawmakers are looking for more ways to reassert their power in crafting foreign policy to check this administration’s carte blanche support for Saudi policies. Some powerful members on appropriations committees in the House and Senate are looking to implement new restrictions on US support for the war in Yemen and on arms sales in upcoming “must pass” spending bills. With enough support, lawmakers could also try to revive the War Powers Resolution or other bills, like the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, to recalibrate US relations with Riyadh. One member of Congress is even urging the House leadership to sue the administration over the previously vetoed War Powers Resolution.

Regardless of how Congress chooses to act, many in its halls are growing increasingly frustrated with Saudi Arabia as these negative reports accumulate. While lawmakers have been distracted with miscellaneous “emergencies” since Khashoggi’s death, the recent spate of bad press is focusing their attention on Saudi Arabia’s troubling activities in the region and many more members will soon call for additional ways to curb the kingdom’s policies.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Joint Resolutions of Disapproval. As Arab Center Washington DC has noted in previous reports, a bipartisan group of senators are looking to vote to disapprove of the 22 proposed arms sales the Trump Administration is trying to rush through with “emergency” provisions. On June 5, senators introduced S. J. Res. 27 – 48 for that purpose. These joint resolutions target sales that directly or indirectly reach Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The United Kingdom, Israel, Jordan, India, South Korea, Italy, and Spain are all mentioned among the 22 resolutions. Senators can force a floor vote on each one of the joint resolutions, with or without Senate Foreign Relations Committee action. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are poised to offer four of their own joint resolutions: one will target all 22 proposed sales at once while the other three focus on specific proposals, such as those offering Abu Dhabi and Riyadh precision-guided missiles.

On a similar note, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is looking to force a vote by June 13 on previously proposed arms sales to Qatar and Bahrain. Paul tried this before but had failed to garner much support.

Resolution Requesting Information on Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Practices in Yemen. While some senators are using the aforementioned joint resolutions to try and stop the transfer of potential weapons sales, Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana), Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) introduced S. Res. 243 that requests that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepare a report for Congress on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices in Yemen. This resolution is also privileged (i.e., guaranteed a floor vote if the senators so desire) and, if it passes and Pompeo abides by the law and provides the pertinent information on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices, the Senate would then have a mechanism for voting on ending security assistance to Riyadh.

Reaffirming the Strong Relationship Between Tunisia and the United States. Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) introduced S. Res. 236 to reaffirm US-Tunisia relations and to express continued support for the Tunisian people’s pursuit of democracy.

Affirming the United States’ Commitment to the Two-State Solution. Seven Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders (Vermont) introduced S. Res. 234 to express the sense of the Senate that the United States stands firmly committed to the two-state solution as the preferred route for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. The cosponsors of this resolution are those Democratic members more inclined to speak out against Israeli policies, which ultimately means it is near its ceiling of support in the upper chamber. However, Axios is reporting that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), a staunch supporter of Israel, is spearheading a similar resolution affirming the need for a two-state solution. Because of his pro-Israel bona fides and his stature in the GOP caucus, the Israeli government is reportedly concerned that a resolution with Graham’s name on it could attract much more support than the Democratic-led one and could actually garner enough votes to pass.

Partnership Fund for Peace Act. More members of Congress appear to be coming to the realization that the Trump Administration’s “peace plan” is unlikely to push Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and that the White House’s scorched-earth policies toward Palestine could very well undermine the status quo. In that regard, bipartisan teams of lawmakers in both chambers introduced the Partnership Fund for Peace Act (S. 1727 and H.R. 3104) that strives to allocate $50 million over five years to stimulate “people-to-people” economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, in addition to other objectives.

Condemning the Attacks on Peaceful Protesters in Sudan. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Michigan) introduced H. Res. 432 that condemns the recent attacks on protesters in Sudan and calls on the TMC to relinquish control of the government in Khartoum to civilians.

Fiscal Year 2020 Defense, State Department Budgets. This week and part of the following week will be packed with debating, amending, and eventually passing a four-bill “minibus” spending package for fiscal year 2020. This first minibus package includes the defense and state and foreign operations budgets, both of which have been described previously. A thorough list of Middle East-related amendments have been noted here, but the final House spending bill likely will not make it out of the lower chamber for another week or two. In addition, the House Armed Services Committee is marking up its version of the National Defense Authorization Act on June 12 and some Middle East provisions are outlined in the committee’s report. The Senate Armed Services Committee reported its version, S. 1790, to the full Senate on June 11.

Imposing Sanctions on Leaders of Organizations That Commit Sexual Violence. On June 11, members of both chambers introduced bills (H.R. 3212 and S. 1777) that would amend previous legislation, including the Global Magnitsky Act, to authorize the president to levy sanctions on and ban visas for leaders of groups that carry out sexual and gender-based violence. The bills would have implications for at least two Arab states—Sudan and Syria—where reports say militias and regime stalwarts have weaponized rape and sexual assault.

2) Hearings and Briefings

President Trump and Iran. On June 11, Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), a leading opponent of a potential war with Iran, appeared at a briefing away from Capitol Hill to discuss what he considers this administration’s disastrous policies toward Iran. He reiterated the need for Congress to reclaim its authorities on declaring war and, in doing so, to focus on crafting a strategic deterrence approach toward Tehran short of war. Specifically, he urged that Congress replace past authorizations for the use of military force and revoke US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

House Republicans Write to Twitter to Ban Hamas. On June 11, a group of Republicans in the House wrote to executives at Twitter demanding that they ban Hamas members from obtaining accounts on the popular social media platform.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Top State Officials Reach out to Egypt, Lebanon, the UAE, and Sudan. This week, a group of top State Department officials visited the Middle East and North Africa. Ambassador James Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Joel Rayburn traveled to Egypt for meetings on Syria with Egyptian and Arab League officials. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy visited Sudan on a swing through East Africa to urge peaceful dialogue between the TMC and civilian protesters. Lastly, Under Secretary of State David Hale spoke with UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash about the situation in Sudan—and presumably Abu Dhabi’s role in it—while media reports suggest Ambassador David Satterfield was back in Beirut to mediate the Lebanon-Israel border dispute.

Ambassador David Friedman Says Israel Has “Right” to Annex West Bank. During an interview with The New York Times, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that in some cases, he believes Israel has “the right to annex” parts of the occupied West Bank. He also contradicted the administration’s talking points by saying that the proposed US “peace plan” is geared toward improving living conditions for Palestinians but that it would not likely result in a “permanent resolution to the conflict.”

2) Department of Treasury

Treasury Targets Iran’s Largest Petrochemical Holding Group. In the most recent ACW report it was noted that the administration had decided to forego sanctioning Iran’s petrochemical industry, a move many saw as reducing tensions. Shortly thereafter, however, the Treasury Department announced that Tehran’s largest petrochemical holding group and many of its subsidiaries are now subject to US sanctions for being the “economic arm” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Sixteen Syrian Individuals and Entities Blacklisted by Treasury. On June 11, the Treasury Department announced that it would be adding three Syrian individuals and 13 entities to its list of “specially designated nationals” to be blacklisted from the US financial system. This newly designated group is said to be part of a network that is close to the Assad regime and that benefits it financially.

3) Department of Defense

Gen. Frank McKenzie Discusses Posture in Arabian Gulf. This week, Commander of Central Command General Frank McKenzie told the Wall Street Journal that while US maneuvers in the Gulf region have been defensive in nature, he is looking to expand US forces further to continue their deterrence strategy against Iran.

Acting Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs Discusses Iran, Russia. On June 11, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Kathryn Wheelbarger sat down with Al-Monitor for a conversation about the US posture in the Middle East. She criticized Russia’s expansionist policies in the region and explained, at length, how recent US force expansion in the Arabian Gulf was necessary to counter what she called a “campaign against [the United States]” that went beyond “typical Iranian malign behavior.” She lauded the recent developments as successful deterrence and as effective in giving Tehran pause.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here