Will Saudi Arabia Face Another Tumultuous Summer in Washington?

Saudi Arabia, no stranger to controversy in the United States, has once again managed to unite disparate political interests in Washington against itself. This week, members of Congress learned that the Inspector General (IG) tasked with conducting independent oversight of the State Department was fired after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically asked President Donald Trump to relieve the IG of his duties. Though Pompeo offered a benign sounding explanation for the recommendation, it surfaced that the IG was investigating Pompeo for both the potential misuse of public funds and for his efforts to circumvent Congress and approve $8 billion in potential arms sales to multiple countries, including Saudi Arabia, in May 2019. Though the legal implications are more severe for Pompeo and other administration officials, the Saudis are not likely to escape unscathed from this latest impropriety.

At the time the administration approved the aforementioned arms sales, Trump and his team were very publicly running interference for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) after his associates were implicated in the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. If the circumstances surrounding the IG’s firing gain steam and force Congress to investigate the matter further, it is reasonable to believe that the Saudis will be found to have been working closely with the administration to get the proposed arms deals approved—just as the highest levels of both governments were coordinating the public relations response to Khashoggi’s murder.

The Saudis also found themselves implicated in another scandal when Attorney General Bill Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray held a press conference to announce the findings of the Department of Justice investigation into the shooting at a Florida naval base in December 2019. According to Barr and Wray, the Saudi military student deemed responsible for the attack was radicalized by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and sought to exploit the Royal Saudi Air Force’s training program with the United States to carry out an attack on Americans. Interestingly, a government report from 2016 directly linked the war in Yemen—launched by MbS—to the persistent threat from AQAP. In the United States at present, observers believe they have reason to blame the Saudis for an isolated terrorist attack by one citizen as well as for a glaring institutional failure in countering terrorism.

Despite the fact that Riyadh is implicated in both a political scandal and yet another terrorist attack on US soil, the kingdom’s reputation in Washington may worsen. The New York Times reports that some incarcerated Saudi citizens, many of whom are members of the royal family, are preparing a blitz of the US capital through lobbyists who will advocate for their release from Saudi prisons. Their strategy is that if MbS will not listen to their appeals, maybe the Trump Administration can get his attention. To be sure, the airing of royal family infighting in Washington has the potential to release information that could further tarnish Riyadh’s image in the United States.

Saudi Arabia’s ability to unite a fractured Washington so consistently is nothing short of remarkable. Even before these latest developments, the Saudis managed to frustrate Republicans despite a cozy relationship with President Trump. For Democrats, Riyadh’s desire to closely tether itself to the fortunes of an extremely unpopular president has been reason enough for their disenchantment. There are now new reasons for individuals on both sides of the aisle to be animated in their opposition to the US-Saudi relationship in the Trump era. Indeed, under the leadership of the woefully unpopular MbS, Saudi Arabia faces another summer of tumult in Washington.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Condemning Iran’s State-Sponsored Persecution of Its Bahai Minority. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) introduced S. Res. 578 to put the Senate on the record as condemning Tehran for its discrimination and persecution of those belonging to the Bahai faith. In a press briefing at the State Department, Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, also spoke about the plight of the Bahai minorities in both Iran and Yemen as pandemic-induced persecution of religious minorities runs rampant around the globe.

Expanding Medical Partnerships with Israel to Lessen Dependence on China Act. This week, bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both chambers introduced bills (H.R. 6829/S. 3722) that seek to fund cooperation between entities in the United States and Israel on developing technologies to counter the spread of the coronavirus. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) originally tried to include the bill’s language in a larger COVID-19 response package earlier this year, but after that fell short the two have introduced their legislation as a stand-alone bill.

USA FREEDOM Authorization Act. Last week, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) examined a number of issues with a piece of legislation that the Senate was considering to reauthorize and amend statutes that authorize the US government’s surveillance abilities. Despite the glaring shortcomings and concerns of the reauthorization legislation, the bill was amended and passed the Senate easily. Though H.R. 6172 originated in the House and was approved by that chamber some time ago, it must return there for reconsideration of the package as amended by the Senate.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan, Bicameral Group of Lawmakers Write in Support of US Presence in Sinai. Last week, ACW detailed a proposal by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to withdraw the US presence in the Multinational Force & Observers operating in Egypt’s Sinai. In response, a bipartisan and bicameral group of some of Congress’s most hawkish members penned a letter opposing the potential end of US participation in the peacekeeping mission.

House and Senate Democrats Issue Statements Opposing Israeli Annexation. Now that Israel’s new government has been sworn in and the country barrels toward formally annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, Congressional Democrats are going on record and appealing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to forego this action. Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), Chris Murphy (Connecticut), and Tim Kaine (Virginia) have spent the last few weeks trying to garner support for a strongly worded letter to Netanyahu and his coalition partner, Benny Gantz, before eventually crafting a more modest piece of correspondence that was intended to let “pro-Israel senators add their voices to those of Israel’s top security experts and American supporters of Israel speaking out against annexation.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-California) office released the text of a letter the senator sent Netanyahu earlier in May that also opposed any Israeli unilateral annexation of land in the West Bank. Feinstein’s letter couches concerns about annexation not in terms of the fact that the occupation remains a glaring encroachment on Palestinian human rights but that maintaining and formally expanding the occupation threatens Israel’s security. A group of House Democrats released their own statement opposing annexation, calling on Secretary Pompeo to ensure Israel does not carry out unilateral annexation.

Congress Sets Its Sights on the International Criminal Court. This week, 331 members of Congress signed onto a pair of letters that call on the administration to protect Israel from a possible International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into Israeli officials’ possible war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) led the first letter (though at least one news outlet determined it was actually written by the lobbying group AIPAC) and garnered signatures from more than two thirds of the upper chamber. Its House counterpart, spearheaded by Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Virginia) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin), garnered the signatures of 260 of their House colleagues, Democrats and Republicans. Though the letters vary to some degree—for example, the House letter on ICC investigations also criticizes the body’s efforts to investigate potential US war crimes in Afghanistan—they are similar in that both grossly misrepresent the nature of the ICC investigation and Israel’s ability and willingness to hold its personnel accountable within its judicial system. The letters also falsely argue that the court does not enjoy the jurisdiction necessary to investigate potential crimes against the population in the occupied territories. Secretary Pompeo issued a State Department press release criticizing the ICC as a “political body” with no jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip, West Bank, or East Jerusalem.

Congressional Progressives Seek Cuts in FY2021 NDAA. Congress is still preparing to draft and approve the authorization and appropriations bills for fiscal year 2021 but members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have staked out a key demand already: cutting the defense budget. Twenty-nine members of the caucus wrote to the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee calling on them to cut the authorized spending levels for the Pentagon in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act.

3) Nominations

SFRC Holds Nomination Hearing for Ambassador to Jordan. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a nomination hearing on May 13 for a spate of nominees, including Henry Wooster, who currently serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Maghreb and Egypt and who has been tapped to serve as ambassador to Jordan.

Wooster stated that Jordan has stake in any potential peace process involving Israel and the Palestinians and that Amman has indeed raised concerns with US officials about the administration’s so-called peace plan and Israel’s annexation efforts. Despite the fact that many Palestinians, who make up a substantial part of Jordan’s population, reject President Trump’s proposal, Wooster said that the plan is “detailed, it’s implementable, it meets the core requirements of both Israeli and Palestinian people” and that the administration has sought Jordan’s help in encouraging the Palestinian leadership to engage with Israel and the United States.

Senate Intelligence Committee Votes to Advance Ratcliffe; Trump Taps Ambassador to Djibouti. Despite concerns that Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) lacks experience and lied about the experience he does have, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted 8-7, along party lines, to advance his nomination to serve as the next Director of National Intelligence.

On May 19, the Trump Administration sent the Senate notice that the president has nominated Jonathan Pratt, a career Foreign Service Officer, to serve as US ambassador to Arab League member state Djibouti.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

State Department Raises Alarms about Iran, Syria. The State Department identified Iran and Syria as countries that have failed to aid the United States in counterterrorism efforts and, by law, those countries should be barred from purchasing or importing defense articles from the United States. In addition, officials at the State Department also produced an advisory to the international maritime community warning them of efforts by Tehran and Damascus to evade US sanctions by utilizing deceptive maritime shipping practices. Finally, the Trump Administration levied sanctions on a Chinese company this week for its role in supporting Iran’s Mahan Air, which remains labeled as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under US law.

Pompeo Meets with Israeli Leadership. ACW provided details about Mike Pompeo’s whirlwind visit to Jerusalem last week. The State Department has now provided additional updates. On his visit, Pompeo held meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the defense minister, former speaker of the Knesset and prime minister-in-waiting, Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. According to one report, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was unable to join the secretary in his meetings after experiencing respiratory troubles. Two State Department officials discussed the secretary’s trip in more detail after the fact, outlining that Pompeo spoke with Israeli leaders about Israeli-Chinese relations, the threat of Iran, and President Trump’s so-called peace plan and Israeli annexation plans.

Ambassador James Jeffrey Discusses Syria with Russian Deputy FM. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, spoke with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin about the situation in Syria and efforts to bring the war to an end. As ACW reported last week, Ambassador Jeffrey has been optimistic recently that the administration has a path forward in Syria for reaching the goals outlined in UN Security Resolution 2254. Secretary Pompeo spoke with his Turkish counterpart this week too and, while the readout does not specifically mention Syria, it is probable that the pair touched on the situation there as both states are active in Syria.

Special Representative for Iran Says US Prepared to Unilaterally Reinstate Sanctions. Brian Hook, the Trump Administration’s point person for Iran, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal fully embracing the idea of Washington’s unilateral reinstatement of UN sanctions on Iran. He assailed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, papered over the administration’s policy shortcomings and lack of true diplomacy, and provided misleading evidence for his positions.

State Department Nears Settlement with Sudan over Terror Compensation. ACW detailed the status Sudan’s efforts to ingratiate itself with United States by compensating the victims of the 1998 terrorist attacks on US facilities in Kenya and Tanzania. Now, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that despite the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the full $10.2 billion in damages owed, the State Department has struck a deal with Khartoum for the new government to compensate the victims with a much lesser amount.

2) Department of Defense

Pentagon Says US Navy Can Attack Any Vessel within 100 Yards. This week, the Department of Defense reportedly issued an order saying that any mariner that travels within 100 yards of US naval ships may be “interpreted as a threat and subject to lawful defensive measures.” While the report does not state the warning is intended for Iran, in recent weeks the US Navy has accused Iran of “harassing” its ships in the Arabian Gulf so it is logical to understand this as a response to what the Pentagon views as threatening behavior by Iran.

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