Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds Hearing on UAE Arms Sales. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met on Monday night to discuss the $23 billion arms sale to the UAE proposed by the Trump Administration in early November. The sale, which would include 50 F-35 fighter jets, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones, and around 14,000 bombs and munition, is among President Donald Trump’s latest moves to further strengthen US relations with Gulf allies prior to leaving the office in January. The move has faced opposition from members of Congress, mostly Democrats, who criticize the UAE’s human rights record in Yemen and its disregard of the Libya arms embargo. There have also been bipartisan concerns that the arms sale could threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge. A bipartisan group of representatives—Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)—have submitted a series of resolutions attempting to block the sale. Currently, there seems to be heightened concern by both Democrats and Republicans toward moving forward with it.

Senators Merkley, Gillibrand at Arms Control Association. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) spoke at the Arms Control Association’s annual conference on December 1st. Merkley, one of the Senate’s most outspoken figures on issues of arms control particularly in relation to Saudi Arabia, delivered the opening keynote speech on the topic of “Restoring U.S. Leadership on Nuclear Weapons Risk Reduction.”

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Examines Rights of Women and Girls in the Middle East. On Wednesday, December 2nd, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing to address the ways that the United States can promote the rights of women and girls in the Middle East. Despite improvements in women’s rights across the region in the past 20 years—including positive trends in women’s education, participation in the labor force, political representation, and access to health care—gender inequality remains a major problem that disproportionately affects women in the Middle East compared to other world areas. Furthermore, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only served to heighten these preexisting inequalities. Speakers highlighted the need for Biden to prioritize human rights as his team formulates foreign policy—a crucial component of which should focus on gender equality—and to penalize foreign governments that fail to respond to these needs. A recurring point of discussion throughout the panel was the need to go beyond introducing quotas to women’s participation, as quotas alone have proven to be insufficient in truly integrating and giving women agency in political negotiations.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate, House Democrats Write to Egypt’s Sisi about Targeting EIPR. This week, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) led a bicameral group of lawmakers in writing a letter to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi about Cairo’s campaign to target and smear members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Signed on November 25, the letter also criticizes the Egyptian regime’s overall human rights record, including allegations of mistreatment and torture in prisons, and warns that the continuation of the current state of crackdown could undermine US-Egyptian relations.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Jared Kushner and Team Travel to Saudi Arabia, Qatar. Senior Trump Administration officials, including White House aides Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, are reportedly set to travel to Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week amid heightening tensions in the Arabian Gulf. Kushner has been at the forefront of efforts to bring formerly secretive Saudi-Israeli relations into public view. After an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran on November 27, the Trump Administration is likely seeking to coordinate with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ensure the United States and its Middle East partners can maintain a unified front against Iran. The same report mentions that Kushner met with Kuwait’s foreign minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al Sabah, when he was in Washington last week. As Kuwait has played a role in trying to repair intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) tensions between Riyadh and Doha, this coming trip may be an extension of the administration’s efforts to end the multi-year row between the two as well.

Trump-brokered Sudan-Israel Normalization at Risk of Falling Apart. One month after President Trump announced that Sudan would follow the UAE and Bahrain in joining the US-brokered Abraham Accords with Israel, the chairman of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, warned that his country will not commit to the agreement if the US Congress does not grant Sudan immunity from future terrorism claims in court. In exchange for providing $355 million in compensation for the victims of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, Sudan expected that it would be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism after 27 years, thus unlocking millions of dollars in aid to the impoverished country. Moreover, normalization with Israel was seen by the Sudanese government as a means to further protect itself from future lawsuits.

2) Department of State

State Announces New Sanctions on Iran’s Supporters and Libya. The State Department outlined a spate on new sanctions this week, this time targeting entities in China and Russia accused of supporting Iran’s missile program and Libyans accused of human rights abuses. The first set of sanctions was consistent with the outgoing administration’s efforts to make certain areas of US foreign policy, including those regarding Iran, irreversible before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, said that the incoming administration would find it difficult to lift the series of sanctions levied against Iran, thus hampering Biden’s ability to return the United States to an expanded version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. As for the second set of sanctions aimed at Libya, Mohamed al-Kani and the Kaniyat militia were targeted for committing extrajudicial violence in the Tripoli region from 2019 to 2020 while aligned with Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). It has been reported that the Kaniyat militia killed hundreds of civilians in the area during the LNA’s offensive against the UN-recognized government based in Tripoli. The United States also condemned “external actors” for undermining the efforts of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to bring peace to the war-torn North African country.

US, Kuwait Release Statement at End of Joint DialogueSecretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al Sabah during the fourth United States-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, where the two officials discussed a variety of security and defense matters in the interest of promoting regional stability. The dialogue produced a memorandum of understanding between the Kuwait Fund and the US Agency for International Development to cooperate on energy and food security, as well as a declaration of intent to negotiate a mutual legal assistance treaty to enhance the two countries’ collaboration on law enforcement. Furthermore, the progress of the Political, Human Rights, and Development Working Group was hailed for its efforts to address the ongoing diplomatic rift in the GCC, with Secretary Pompeo praising the new emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, for continuing the mediation efforts of his predecessor to resolve the dispute. The United States and Kuwait also reaffirmed the GCC’s efforts to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which expired in October of this year. Marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Shield, in which the United States expelled Iraqi forces that had invaded and annexed Kuwait, Secretary Pompeo applauded ongoing meetings of the Joint Iraq-Kuwait Higher Ministerial Committee, which has sought to resolve the maritime boundary between the two countries.

Secretary Pompeo Launches US-Bahrain Strategic Dialogue. As part of the first strategic dialogue between the United States and Bahrain, Secretary Pompeo and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani delivered remarks on shared interests with regards to defense cooperation, regional security, and economic development. The United States and Bahrain recognized Iran as the primary threat to security in the Gulf region. In that vein, both officials praised the recent signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between the UAE and Bahrain with Israel. In addition to facilitating greater economic and technological cooperation among the signatories, both officials recognized that the ability to confront Iranian activity in the region, which Foreign Minister Al Zayani described as “malign,” was enhanced as a result of normalization.

Assistant Secretary David Schenker to Travel to the Gulf. David Schenker, the Trump Administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, is expected to travel to Oman and Saudi Arabia to discuss a variety of matters including regional security, economic cooperation, and the ongoing GCC crisis. Discussions on the war in Yemen are also likely to figure into such meetings. This comes as sources report that the kingdom offered to sign a UN-sponsored cease-fire with the Iranian-aligned Houthis in exchange for a buffer zone along the Saudi-Yemeni border, which further signals Saudi Arabia’s intent to end its intervention in the conflict. The report itself followed a recent Houthi-claimed strike against Saudi Aramco in the port-city of Jeddah. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to capitalize on Saudi Arabia’s change in posture toward the Yemen conflict, which would not only result in both domestic and international political gains for Biden but would also offer a way for the Saudis to save face.

3) Department of Defense

Acting Secretary Miller Travels to Middle East as CIA Officer Perishes in Somalia. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller embarked on a multi-country tour through the Middle East and East Africa this week, including stops in Arab League States BahrainQatarDjibouti, and Somalia. Miller’s travels included meetings with foreign officials as well as visits with troops stationed throughout the Arabian Gulf and East Africa for the Thanksgiving holiday. In Qatar, Miller met with Doha’s defense minister to discuss defense and security cooperation. In Djibouti and Somalia, Miller met with US service members and also spoke about Washington’s resolve to continue combating violent extremists in the region, all while planning the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia. Miller’s stop in Mogadishu coincided with reports that a Central Intelligence Agency officer was killed in combat under unknown circumstances in Somalia.