Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senators Scuttle Attempt to Block UAE Arms Sales. On December 9, the full Senate voted on a pair of joint resolutions (see here and here) that looked to block the Trump Administration from moving forward with the bulk of its plans to sell $23 billion in arms to the United Arab Emirates. The votes fell well short of the necessary 67 needed to overcome a presidential veto that the administration warned beforehand would be issued. However, sales of this magnitude usually take years to formally complete and deliver, and Tony Blinken, who is expected to serve as secretary of state in the Biden Administration, is expected to review the sales and decide whether or not the new administration wants to maintain this commitment.

National Defense Authorization Act Heads to Trump’s Desk. Arab Center Washington DC’s (ACW) last Washington Policy Weekly highlighted that the House of Representatives agreed to adopt the reconciled National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2021 that negotiators hashed out between Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress. On December 11, the Senate followed suit and overwhelmingly adopted the legislation, challenging President Donald Trump on his vow to veto the legislation. President Trump has until December 23rd to decide whether to follow through and veto the nearly $732 billion authorization bill or allow the legislation to pass as is.

Though the legislation does not actually budget—or appropriate—the money the Department of Defense is to get, it authorizes the Pentagon and other agencies included in the bill to spend what resources Congress will later appropriate. The latest, negotiated bill authorizes the Department of Defense to spend billions in the Middle East and North Africa, including provisions that provide Israel with at least $3.3 billion in security assistance every year through fiscal year 2028. That is in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for Israel to use on missile defense systems and the provision of precision-guided missiles. The legislation also includes provisions outlining counterterrorism and security authorities in Iraq and Syria, clarifying US policy toward the conflict in Yemen and US support for the Saudi-led coalition there, and other policies touching on Sudan, Iran, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Stop the Killing in Syria Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced H.R. 8931—also known as the Stop the Killing in Syria Act—in an effort to “enact the toughest sanctions ever proposed on the Assad regime in Syria.” The 32-page bill does offer a slate of sanctions, but it also includes reporting requirements on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s net worth as well as a report on a potential strategy for “removing the al-Assad regime from power and achieving a transition to a free and democratic Syria.” The legislation, were it to become law, also prohibits any future president from recognizing Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate president of Syria or recognizing his regime.

The Stop the Killing in Syria Act includes another reporting requirement outlining what the consequences of lifting sanctions on Iran would be in Syria, where years of conflict have resulted in numerous war crimes. This provision appears linked to the Badr Organization Designation Act that Rep. Wilson introduced earlier this month. That bill would require a future administration to determine whether it is appropriate to designate Iraq’s Badr Organization—an entity once known to operate as an Iran-backed militia, but now is also an official political party—as a terrorist organization or levy sanctions on it, in part for committing war crimes in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime and its backers in Iran.

Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced S. 4992 as the upper chamber’s companion bill to Rep. Adam Schiff’s Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act. The legislation, as detailed in this ACW report last October, would broaden US policy to include violence perpetrated specifically against journalists as a human rights abuse and could lead to sanctions against foreign leaders, entities, and institutions that perpetrate these human rights violations.

Israel CENTCOM Reclassification Act. Seven Senate Republicans introduced S. 4978 in order for the Department of Defense to determine whether it is practical and worthwhile for US Central Command (CENTCOM)—the division of the Pentagon that coordinates and carries out operations in the Middle East—to absorb Israel into its area of responsibility (AOR). As it stands currently, Israel is included in European Command’s AOR, but according to the senators the so-called Abraham Accords have ushered in peace and stability in the region and so the Israel CENTCOM Reclassification Act would allow the Pentagon to explore including Israel in its AOR for closer cooperation between the United States, Israel, and Washington’s other partners in the region.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Congressional Advisor Matt Duss Forecasts US-Saudi Relations During 117th Congress. On December 9, the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) held a multi-panel virtual conference focused on exploring the future of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In an effort to explore Congress’ role in shaping the future of US-Saudi relations, POMED hosted Matt Duss, who serves as Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) foreign policy advisor, to explain how the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is expected to be on Capitol Hill.

Duss said he witnessed how Saudi Arabia’s recklessness over the last four years—including its war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi—has prompted members of Congress to embrace the idea that Washington needs to fundamentally reassess its relationship with Riyadh. Duss said that with the Biden Administration taking over, the Democratic House majority and a potentially 50-50 Senate could seek to challenge US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as well as restrict arms sales to Riyadh and its partner Abu Dhabi. One comment Duss made was likely of particular interest for the Saudi royal family. When discussing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Duss reminded viewers that in December 2018, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution that agreed with the Intelligence Community’s findings that MbS was responsible for the murder. For this, Duss said he finds it difficult to imagine the crown prince ever being welcomed back in Washington.

Senator Chris Murphy Discusses Prospects for US Foreign Policy in the Middle East. On December 15, Notre Dame University’s Keough School for Global Affairs held a webinar with Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) for a broad look at US foreign policy. Though the senator tackled topics related to US foreign policy more broadly, he also touched on issues related specifically to the Middle East and North Africa. Sen. Murphy’s number one foreign policy priority seemed to be Yemen, from which he called on Congress and the Biden Administration to extricate the United States and end its involvement in the Saudi-led war there.

In addition, Murphy argued that President-elect should immediately rejoin the JCPOA and relax sanctions in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the parameters of the deal. He acknowledged that some renegotiating would likely be necessary, but he largely faulted the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign for accelerating Tehran’s nuclear activities. Though he spoke on the topics to a lesser degree, the senator also called on the next administration to reassert itself as a leader, diplomatically, to end the ongoing war in Libya and argued that the United States should fundamentally reassess its relationship with Egypt.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Cross Intra-Party Divide in Urging a Return to the JCPOA. According to a report this week, several House Democrats have signed onto a letter calling on President-elect Biden to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and the other signatories—as long as Iran falls back into compliance with the deal—before undertaking new negotiations. The list of signatories thus far spans the party’s ideological spectrum, including progressives like Reps. Barbara Lee (California) and Joaquin Castro (Texas), foreign policy hawks like Abigail Spanberger (Virginia), and other lawmakers generally believed to be in line with the more conservative pro-Israel camp like Brad Sherman (California) and incoming House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks (New York).

Unity among the incoming House majority might be critical for President-elect Biden since, according to a recent Axios report, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up to put significant pressure on the Biden Administration when it comes to Iran policy. However, if Democrats on Capitol Hill can stay united and remain on the same page as President-elect Biden, then Netanyahu may have a harder time undermining Democrats’ preferred policies.

Top Democrats Seek Investigation of Kushner’s Role in Foreign Policy. Rep. Castro, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to the White House Counsel’s Office regarding White House Advisor Jared Kushner’s business interests in Gulf Arab states. According to their letter, Kushner’s business dealings with some key states there present a possible conflict of interest. They also questioned whether he was advised to recuse himself from White House Middle East policy that includes those states. As has been known for the duration of Trump’s time as president, Kushner oversaw the White House’s Middle East portfolio and, with deep personal relationships with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and Anu Dhabi, UAE, some questioned whether White House policy decisions could have been made in exchange for favorable business dealings with some of these states.

Progressives Call on Gulf to End Kafala System. In honor of Human Rights Day, prominent House progressives led a group of Democrats in asking the State Department to take “urgent diplomatic measures” in order to push Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to end what is known as the kafala sponsorship program. This system is used in the GCC to secure foreign laborers and critics like these House lawmakers consider it to be a form of human trafficking. As such, they urge the Trump Administration to push GCC governments to reform the system and offer labor and other protections to their guest workers.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Brokers New Normalization Deal, But Another Falters. President Trump triumphantly announced that his White House brokered another normalization agreement, this time between Israel and Morocco. Though the two have shared informal ties for some time now, Israel and Morocco agreed to formally normalize relations after Rabat received assurances from Washington. First, the Trump Administration agreed to recognize Morocco’s disputed territorial claim over the Western Sahara and announced the establishment of a US consulate in the region. In addition, it was reported that, shortly after the announced normalization, the Trump Administration agreed to sell Rabat roughly $1 billion in lethal weaponry, including drones and precision-guided weapons. The White House’s Jared Kushner will lead a delegation to Morocco and Israel next week for further discussions about the agreement.

While the White House celebrated Morocco’s becoming the fourth Arab state to formally normalize relations with Israel, an earlier deal struck between Sudan and Israel seemed to be in jeopardy. After a 45-day congressional review period lapsed on December 14, the United States officially rescinded Khartoum’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, opening the way for the transitional government there to access desperately needed foreign assistance and financing. Despite that breakthrough, some Sudanese transitional government officials have said that formalizing ties with Israel is conditioned on not only that aforementioned rescission, but also on Congress formally reinstituting Khartoum’s sovereign immunity, which insulates foreign governments from being sued by American citizens. Sovereign immunity would preempt US citizens from seeking to hold Sudan liable for its role in facilitating terrorist attacks in 1998 and 2001, but US lawmakers wanted Khartoum to compensate the families of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks as part of the transitional government’s larger compensation agreement to victims of terrorism. After President Trump’s offer to provide a total of $850 million to those families was rejected by lawmakers, it is difficult to see how sovereign immunity legislation passes both chambers. It is equally as difficult to envision Sudan moving forward with normalizing ties with Israel absent that legislation.

Despite National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s lofty rhetoric alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, the backsliding in the deal struck between the United States, Israel, and Sudan shows how much these agreements are based more on quid pro quos that see Arab states receive favorable treatment from the United States and robust arms packages than general peace. That means it could be hard to cement more normalization deals since President Trump and his team only have about a month left in which they can try and craft enticing packages to offer Arab states in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.

2) Department of State

US Levies New Sanctions on Iran, Turkey, Foreign Terrorists. The State Department announced a spate of new sanctions this week, targeting foreign terrorists and state actors in the Middle East and North Africa. The Bahraini group known as Saraya al-Mukhtar is now officially recognized as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) organization, as is the head of Tunisia’s Islamic State (IS) affiliate, Ashraf al-Qizani. Both designations look to blacklist them out of the US financial system. In addition to these non-state actors, Iranian and Turkish officials got snared in the administration’s sanctions regime as well. Two officials of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were blacklisted for their roles in the abduction and probable death of US citizen Robert Levinson. As for Turkey, its Presidency of Defense Industries was handed sanctions under US law that prohibited Ankara from buying or testing the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which Turkey flouted.

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Saudi Foreign Minister. On December 14, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with his Saudi counterpart Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud about US-Saudi relations and efforts to resolve the ongoing GCC crisis.

III. Judicial Branch

US Citizens Target Qatari Banks in New Lawsuit. In a new lawsuit filed in New York on December 15, American citizens are suing Qatari banks accused of facilitating terrorist attacks in Israel. Though the suits do not target government officials directly, the effort still seeks to deem Doha as responsible for aiding Palestinian attackers since the executives of the country’s top banks are “drawn from the royal family,” according to the Washington Post.

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