Could Saad Aljabri Drive a Wedge between Washington and Riyadh?

After over three and a half years of President Donald Trump’s steadfast support for Saudi Arabia, Saad Aljabri, “a former top Saudi intelligence officer and close US intelligence ally” (as described by The Washington Post), could be doing the unthinkable: driving a wedge between Trump and the Saudi royal family. In May, Arab Center Washington DC published a report questioning whether this summer would be a tumultuous one for the Saudis in Washington. At that time, they were implicated in two unflattering investigations—a Saudi military student’s terrorist attack on a US military base and questionable US arms sales—while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) also faced the prospect of his subterfuge being made public for all of Washington to see.

Even before Aljabri’s plight became well publicized in the US media, Riyadh and its mercurial crown prince were subjects of official Washington’s scrutiny. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced “bipartisan legislation to block future sales of armed drones to countries like Saudi Arabia.” The legislation, S. 4474, looks to amend US arms control law in direct response to the Trump Administration’s decision to weaken US adherence to export regulations on advanced weapons-capable, unmanned aerial systems. Lawmakers immediately cried foul and charged that the administration was bypassing the international Missile Technology Control Regime to the benefit of problematic allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

That decision coincided with an investigation of a State Department Inspector General (IG) into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to use emergency authorities to transfer weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, on which Congress had previously placed holds. The IG’s office released its report this week and the State Department immediately hailed its findings as vindication that the secretary did nothing wrong in circumventing the will of Congress to provide weapons to Riyadh, to protect against the purported emergency Iran presented to the region. However, an unredacted version of that IG report made clear that although Pompeo followed the letter of the law, he arguably broke the spirit of it because he failed to consider the risks to civilians posed by the Saudis and their allies. Furthermore, the full timeline of Pompeo’s deliberation indicates that there was not so much an “emergency” as Pompeo just wanting to find a way to export weapons to the Saudis despite Congress’s disapproval.

This form of Trump Administration support for Saudi Arabia, in the face of congressional opposition, is not new. However, after reports that MbS tried to have yet another Saudi expatriate killed abroad, even officials in the Trump Administration have become wary of Riyadh’s belligerence. The aforementioned Saad Aljabri filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that MbS tried to have a team of Saudis enter Canada to kill him in order to prevent Aljabri, who has vast knowledge of internal Saudi politics, from potentially undermining the crown prince’s rise to the throne. The plot that Aljabri alleges is not unlike the one orchestrated by MbS to silence Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Shortly after the lawsuit was reported, the State Department sent a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)—in response to an earlier letter Leahy had written—informing him that the State Department had urged Saudi Arabia to release Aljabri’s two children from secret detention there. The letter, as reported by The Guardian, called the persecution of Aljabri’s children “unacceptable,” which is a rare rebuke of the royal family by the current administration. The letter also indicated that official Washington holds Aljabri in high esteem, referring to the goodwill and trust he has built over the years.

Moving forward, President Trump and Secretary Pompeo may be forced into an uncomfortable position if the court does not dismiss the case outright. After the district court issued a summons to MbS, it is all but certain the crown prince will lobby the pair to issue a letter suggesting immunity, asking the court to dismiss the case in order to maintain official relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. If Trump and Pompeo refuse, then MbS could ignore the summons—but then the court would issue a default judgment that would reward Aljabri with compensation. Regardless of the result, the publicity this lawsuit has generated and will continue to garner will only raise more questions about MbS’s character and controversial behavior. As Election Day draws nearer for President Trump, it is unclear if he will now exert more energy to defend Riyadh. In effect, Saad Aljabri’s public pressure campaign may have just fissured the close relationship between the White House and the House of Saud.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Strengthening Reporting of Actions Taken against the Normalization of Relations with Israel Act. Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced S. 4482 that seeks to require a government report on instances when Arab governments retaliate against their citizens for engaging in people-to-people relations with Israelis. Citing the Arab League’s official boycott of Israel, this legislation would mandate that the State Department provide a status report on Middle East countries’ anti-normalization laws each year, from 2021 until 2026, in its annual Report on Human Rights Practices.

Expressing the Sense on US-Israel Cooperation on Precision-Guided Munitions. Senator Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) introduced S. Res. 669 expressing the sense of the Senate that the United States should take every possible step to expedite the export of precision-guided missiles to Israel.

US-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund Act. Senators John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) introduced S. 4522 in an effort to provide more federal funding for US-Israel joint programs. This legislation sets aside half a million dollars per year for joint agricultural endeavors.

Commemorating June 20, 2020 as World Refugee Day. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. Res. 674 commemorating World Refugee Day and publishing, for the record, facts about the status of refugees in the world today. The resolution specifically notes that Syria has the world’s worst displacement crisis. It also expresses the need for the international community to assist host nations like Jordan in their efforts to provide for refugee populations.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Candidates Seeking HFAC Chair Support Restriction on US Aid to Israel for Annexation. The top three candidates expected to vie for the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC)—Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), Brad Sherman (D-California), and Joaquín Castro (D-Texas)—have all reportedly expressed support for restricting US assistance to Israel to ensure that aid is not used to annex parts of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley. For the two centrist candidates, Meeks and Sherman, this represents a surprising break from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with which they have been most closely aligned. AIPAC opposes any suggestions of conditioning or cutting aid to Israel, even if that aid goes directly to supporting annexation.

Rep. Velasquez Seeks to Clarify Support for Israel. Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-New York) recently sent a letter to constituents clarifying her support for Israel. Velasquez signed a letter drafted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) that suggested Washington could condition future US assistance to Israel if the latter followed through with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plan. Velasquez wrote to her constituents to assure them that she stands firm in guaranteeing robust US assistance to Israel, while also saying that she is committed to ensuring that US aid does not help to further Israel’s unilateral annexation of occupied Palestinian territory.

Eighty-four House Members Call for the United States to Aid Lebanon after Beirut Explosion. After last week’s Beirut port explosion, a bipartisan group of 84 representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo requesting that he provide assistance to Lebanon above and beyond the $15 million that the US Agency for International Development had pledged in aid. Despite the serious challenges Lebanon is facing, Congress views the country as a potentially strong partner in the region and lawmakers are seeking to push the Trump Administration to help stabilize the country after a disaster that will severely hinder its already faltering economic outlook.

3) Hearings and Briefings

SFRC Members Probe Nominee on Djibouti. On August 5, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a virtual nomination hearing to question five ambassadorial nominees, one of whom is Jonathan Pratt, a career foreign service office who has been tapped to serve in Djibouti. Pratt told the committee that his priorities, should he be confirmed, would include helping US companies gain greater entry into the Djiboutian economy and maintaining and growing US support for Djibouti’s diplomatic and security outreach to neighboring Somalia. As lawmakers’ remarks made clear, Djibouti is also a key cog in the great power competition between the United States and China. Djibouti hosts Beijing’s first foreign military base and many members of the committee tasked Pratt with signaling to Djibouti’s leaders that Washington is a more trustworthy and reliable partner on economic and security issues.

Senator Tim Kaine Grills Defense Nominee on Ties to Khashoggi’s Killers. This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a nomination hearing for four candidates for Department of Defense appointments. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) questioned Louis Bremer, the nominee to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, about a defense contracting firm on the board of which Bremer sits. Tier 1, an Arkansas-based company, has been paid to train foreign troops in the past, including soldiers from Saudi Arabia. Kaine noted that according to a Washington Post story, Tier 1 trained some members of the team that flew to Istanbul to kill Senator Kaine’s constituent, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Earlier in the hearing, Bremer vowed to resign his membership from boards of all companies should he win confirmation. It is expected that his record will be scrutinized in the future should he be implicated in any Pentagon decisions that appear to unduly benefit Riyadh.

4) Nominations

Senate Confirms UN Representatives, Ambassador to Jordan. The full Senate voted to confirm three nominees who will be tasked with overseeing key relationships at the bilateral and multilateral levels. Henry Wooster was confirmed as ambassador to Jordan, Joseph Manso will be the US representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and Richard Mills, Jr. will be the next deputy representative to the United Nations.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Speaks with Lebanon’s Aoun, Joins Donor Conference. After the devastating explosion in Beirut, President Trump spoke on the phone with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, to express the United States’ support for Lebanon at this time. As such, Trump participated in an international donor conference that France’s Emmanuel Macron organized. The conference raised nearly $300 million in pledged contributions and President Trump vowed to give an unstated amount in additional aid.

2) Department of State and USAID

USCIRF Update with USAID: The President’s Executive Order on International Religious Freedom. On August 5th, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a virtual briefing with the acting administrator for USAID to discuss the latter’s work since Trump issued an executive order on religious freedom. The executive order, as the panelists described it, solidifies international religious freedom as a key tenet of US foreign policy and provides a minimum of $50 million in additional funding to support religious minorities around the globe. A linchpin of USAID’s work in this area has been in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar province, where the Yezidi community suffered genocide at the hands of the so-called Islamic State. Since then, USAID has initiated partnerships with local actors to help with reconstruction and entrepreneurship in order to make it easier for displaced Yezidis to return to the area. Since the president signed the executive order, Yezidis have been returning to Sinjar, though at a slow pace. Now, the agency is working to allocate additional funds to reconstruct schools, ensure the stable flow of electricity and water, and work with others in the international community to guarantee security for survivors to return to their homes.

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Officials from Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia. Due to ongoing crises in Lebanon and North Africa, Secretary of State Pompeo held phone calls with the former prime minister of Lebanon, the president of Tunisia, and the foreign minister of Egypt. Pompeo spoke with Hassan Diab after a devastating explosion destroyed Beirut’s port and the surrounding parts of the city. According to the readout about the call, Pompeo expressed his condolences and pledged Washington’s support for the country. The Lebanese prime minister later resigned.

The secretary spoke with Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, about matters pertaining to Tunis’s seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), which may indicate that the conversation was about extending the UN arms embargo on Iran or, about UNSC actions on states that continue meddling in Libya’s civil war. The latter issue was the topic of discussion between Pompeo and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry. As the State Department levied sanctions on actors—including an outside entity based in Malta—that are destabilizing Libyan security, it is plausible that the call served as a warning against further Egyptian intervention in its neighbor’s conflict.

Special Representative Hook Gives Last Briefing before Resigning. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook announced that he is leaving his position in the near future. Before the announcement, he participated in what now appears to be his final public briefing in his role, sitting down for an interview at the Aspen Security Forum. Hook said he believes the United States’ “maximum pressure campaign” has been effective in furthering US priorities in the Gulf region and that economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of military force have defended US interests and led to the collapse of Iran’s oil sector. Hook downplayed the possibility of reaching a nuclear deal under the Trump administration and encouraged observers instead to applaud the progress that the administration’s strategy has made—in a way implying that any such deal this year is highly unlikely.

Moving forward, Hook reiterated his position that the United States must do whatever necessary—including unilaterally reimposing UN sanctions and extending the arms embargo on Tehran—to constrain Iran. With Hook out of the picture, Elliott Abrams, who currently serves as the US special representative for Venezuela, will take over in Hook’s place. It is an ironic personnel shift, however, as Abrams was convicted of lying to Congress about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra Affair, a covert ploy in the mid-1980s in which the Ronald Reagan Administration illegally sold arms to Iran and used those profits to illegally supply the Nicaraguan Sandinistas with weapons.

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