Requiring Annual Reports on Religious Intolerance in Saudi Education Materials. On January 15, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced H.R. 554, which tasks the State Department with crafting an annual report that would outline examples of Saudi Arabia’s educational materials promoting religious intolerance. Although this issue has not received much attention in recent years due to the promised moderating changes in the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), it remained an important topic for Congress. Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for authoring textbooks––and later exporting them around the globe––that contain information that many consider intolerant to other religions. The bill was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration.
Sanctions on Iranians That Threaten Stability of Iraq. Also on January 15, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) proposed levying more sanctions on Iranian individuals via H.R. 571. This proposed set of sanctions is similar to legislation that came up in the last Congress and passed the House but never became law. Essentially, Iranians who carry out attacks or other acts to destabilize the fragile political situation in Iraq would be subject to US sanctions. The bill was referred to the HFAC and, should the bill garner the same amount of support as during the last Congress, it should pass the House again.
Supporting Coptic Christians in Egypt. On January 16, Rep. French Hill (R-Arkansas) introduced H. Res. 49 to express the sense of the House that the government of Egypt, while a helpful security partner, needs to do more to protect its Coptic Christian population. Over the last few years, Islamic State (IS) affiliates and other extremists have targeted Copts around the country and many observers say that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s government has done little to protect the vulnerable community or hold those attacking it accountable.
FY2019 State Department Appropriations. This week, Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-New York) introduced a comprehensive appropriations package to reopen the government (H.R. 648) that includes the fiscal year 2019 budget for the State Department. This version is more relevant than H.R. 21 discussed last week because it is the product of extensive negotiations between House and Senate appropriators and thus it is possible that something resembling it could become law. In total, this bill sets the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) budget at $54.2 billion—some $200 million more than the fiscal year 2018 budget and nearly $12 billion more than the Trump Adminsitration requested. Under this proposal, the budgets for security assistance and humanitarian assistance are increased by $128 million and $173 million, respectively.
In this version, the reduction of foreign military financing (FMF) money for Egypt is reversed, restoring the full $1.3 billion. The budget for Western Sahara was also reintegrated into broader funding for Morocco, reversing a provision in the previous budget that Rabat saw as an affront. Other than those developments, H.R. 648 largely mirrors H.R. 21 with regards to aid to Middle Eastern states, with one interesting exception. The most recent version restricts Saudi Arabia’s access to international military education and training funds in the amount of $10,000, a small but symbolic blow to Riyadh. Usually, including the funds allowed Riyadh broader discounts on training run by the Pentagon. The exclusion now will affect future discounts and Saudi Arabia might have to pay regular price for the training. This last provision was accompanied by a separate bill this week (H.R. 643) that would prohibit Washington from providing any security assistance or selling any arms packages to Saudi Arabia.
2) Correspondence and Personnel
ZOA Lobbies Congress, White House to Revoke State Department Opinion on Settlements. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that officials from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) panned Washington in order to lobby members of Congress and Trump Administration officials on a plan to revoke a 1970s-era legal opinion that says that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “inconsistent with international law.” ZOA says that if this opinion remains on the books, then it can be used to support “anti-Israel” resolutions at the United Nations, despite the fact that both the UN and the European Union explicitly consider the settlements as illegal. Interestingly, ZOA wants the Trump Administration to rescind the opinion despite the fact that it does not explicitly call settlements illegal and no administration has ever outright called them illegal. It is uncertain whether the opinion will be rescinded, but if there was ever an administration to do it, it is likely to be the current one.
White House Sends Senate a Host of Nominees Overseeing Middle East Issues. On January 16, the president sent a list of nominations for the Senate to consider, many of whose positions deal directly with Middle East states and issues at the State Department. A number of the nominees whose names were submitted this week had also been nominated last year, but when the 115th Congress adjourned and the 116th began, those nominations lapsed and had to be resubmitted. The list of nominees submitted to the Senate this week is as follows: John Abizaid (Ambassador to Saudi Arabia); Marshall Billingslea (Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights); R. Clarke Cooper (Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, which helps manage arms sales to foreign states); Robert A. Destro (Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor); David Fischer (Ambassador to Morocco); Ronald Mortensen (Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration); John Rakolta, Jr. (Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates); David Schenker (Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs); and Matthew Tueller (Ambassador to Iraq).
Molly Phee’s name was notably absent from the list that the White House delivered to the Senate. Phee was originally tapped to serve as Ambassador to Qatar, but CNN reported that the president has opted to nominate one-term Virginia Congressman Scott Taylor to fill the post instead. While the CNN report notes that Taylor boasts of some experience with the Gulf, the president has chosen to elevate a relative foreign policy newcomer over a career State Department official at a time when some Gulf Arab states remain embroiled in a tense dispute with Qatar.
Rep. Babin Wants to Block House Colleague from Visiting the West Bank. On January 17, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) sent a letter to all Democratic chairpersons requesting that they deny any request by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) to travel to the West Bank. Babin said that, because these congressional delegations are taxpayer-funded trips, allowing Tlaib to visit the West Bank would send the wrong message and ultimately “threaten vital US-Israel relations and Middle East security.” Her presence is allegedly too threatening because she supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and used foul language in a post-swearing-in speech, according to Babin’s letter. While Babin obviously has a problem with his colleague from Michigan, representatives have taken trips to the occupied West Bank before, so there is little reason to believe Tlaib will be denied the opportunity.
II. Executive Branch
1) State Department
Secretary Pompeo Completes Lengthy Tour of the Middle East. As detailed last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on a long trip through the Middle East during the past two weeks. He finished his trip on January 15 after stops in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, and Muscat. Pompeo canceled his planned visit to Kuwait City in order to attend a funeral. Pompeo held talks with key leaders in all of the Gulf States and took part in the second annual United States-Qatar Strategic Dialogue.
In Riyadh, while Pompeo did say that he spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) about the ongoing war in Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the optics of the meeting were not good for him. Many saw the jovial atmosphere in a Saudi palace as symbolic of the disregard MbS has for values normally respected by the United States. Members of Congress thought so, with some vowing to increase pressure on passing legislation to shame and punish Riyadh in the wake of the meeting. Newly elected Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) said he thought Congress would act to “wipe the smug look of impunity off of [MbS’] face.”
Under Secretary Hale Meets with Hariri in Beirut. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visited Beirut, Lebanon at the end of a lengthy trip to Europe this week. As has become the case in the Trump Administration’s State Department, the focus of Hale’s conversations in Lebanon was on Iran and its support for Hezbollah. In an effort to marginalize the party, Hale said that the United States would continue its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces and internal security services. In addition, Hale urged Hariri to work as quickly as possible to form a new government to ensure that there is not a power vacuum that Hezbollah can exploit.
2) Defense Department
US Forces Suffer Casualties at the Hands of IS in Syria. Only four weeks after President Trump declared the so-called Islamic State (IS) defeated and ordered US troops to be withdrawn from Syria, the same group carried out an attack in Manbij, Syria, that left four Americans dead. Politicians in Washington hastened to remind the administration that, while IS had suffered serious territorial defeats, the group was in no way “defeated.” Whether or not the attack causes President Trump to reconsider his decision or the timeframe for which troops have to leave remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that the attack illustrates well the vulnerabilities of US policy in Syria, that IS still has capabilities to wreak havoc in Syria (and likely Iraq), and that Turkey probably cannot finish off the group like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan convinced Mr. Trump it could.
United States Reportedly Trained UAE Forces for Yemen Combat. Yahoo! News reported this week that, despite frequent denials, documents reveal that the Pentagon has actively trained Emirati soldiers for air combat in Yemen. These documents from the US Air Force indicate that the United States has been much more involved than previously reported in the ongoing fighting in Yemen and that Defense Department officials have been obscuring the true extent of US involvement in the war. As the 115th Congress concluded in December, there was bipartisan support in both chambers to do something to extricate Washington from that disastrous war and such reports will only whet that appetite.