As Trump Touts Gulf Arab Diplomacy, Congress Questions US-Saudi Relations

Gulf Arab states were at the forefront of Washington’s attention this week. The Trump Administration was in a celebratory mood, touting Bahrain’s decision to normalize relations with Israel––following a similar decision by the United Arab Emirates (UAE)––as evidence of the White House’s foreign policy success. President Donald Trump also hosted delegations on September 15 from the UAE and Bahrain at the White House for a signing ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Up until the White House signing ceremony, the UAE and Israel were still giving conflicting descriptions of what their normalization agreement portended for questions regarding Palestine. Previously, there were disputes between them about whether Israel’s freeze on annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, was permanent or temporary. As late as September 13, the UAE asserted that the United States guaranteed it would not green-light Israeli annexation—an endorsement most observers believe is necessary for Israel to actually execute the move—until 2024, if the Emiratis agreed to normalize relations. Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, has maintained that annexation remains an option. Regardless of the dearth of specifics, President Trump and his team reveled in the optics as Israel and the UAE and Bahrain codified their new public relationship at the White House.

Aside from the signing ceremony and photo-ops at the White House, officials from throughout the Trump Administration held several bilateral events with GCC states. On September 14, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani led delegations in commencing the third US-Qatar Joint Strategic Dialogue. In a speech on the occasion, Secretary Pompeo emphasized the Trump Administration’s desire to see the ongoing Gulf crisis resolved. The two top diplomats later held a bilateral meeting and discussed ways to cooperate in political, economic, military, and cultural affairs.

Finally, Washington and Abu Dhabi took action to further strengthen diplomatic relations. The State Department announced it signed an “Enhanced Consular Privileges and Immunities Agreement” with the UAE, extending traditional diplomatic immunities to staff of both countries’ consulates. While it is common practice to provide immunity to diplomats and staffs for all countries in embassies, consulates do not always receive that legal shield, which is considered the mark of a close and highly reliable relationship.

Rethinking US-Saudi Relations

Not all of the attention paid to the Gulf Arab states was welcome, however. As the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks came and went, lawmakers renewed their attention on Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was the subject of a congressional hearing in which Democratic lawmakers—no Republicans appeared to claim time to speak—questioned the value of the US-Saudi security and intelligence relationship and explored ways to reorient relations between Washington and Riyadh. The witnesses included former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Ali Soufan, former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Riedel, and UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard.

Through their collective testimonies, the witnesses painted a picture of a Saudi Arabia that is an unreliable and reckless partner that disregards US interests in its actions, as it did in starting the war in Yemen and killing US legal resident Jamal Khashoggi. The prescriptions that the witnesses put forth to Congress clearly were not positive for the Saudis. All three stressed that Congress must make sure the US-Saudi relationship is transparent, including sharing with the American public all the information the government has about Riyadh’s roles in the 9/11 attacks and in Khashoggi’s murder. In addition, Callamard recommended that Congress broaden sanctions on Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Riedel advocated that Washington take immediate steps to cease all involvement in the war on Yemen, withdraw the bulk of US troops from Saudi Arabia, cut back military and intelligence training, refuse any new arms sales, and disrupt logistics support for any ongoing Saudi Royal Air Force activities. Soufan concluded by arguing that Congress and the White House should hold Saudi Arabia to the same standard as Washington holds its true allies, urging the US government to stop ignoring Saudi malfeasance.

That same day, a US federal judge ruled that the Saudi government must make 24 former and current Saudi officials available for questioning in a lawsuit that seeks to hold Riyadh as partly responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks. Though it is far from clear how the judge’s order could be enforced, the decision provides some substantiation of plaintiffs’ claims that the Saudi government provided material assistance to some of the Saudi citizens who eventually carried out the attacks on New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. The group of people the court wants to question includes Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a member of the Saudi royal family who formerly served as a Saudi ambassador to the United States and is the father of the current Saudi ambassador in Washington.

Indeed, every September brings with it undesirable attention to the Saudis; the kingdom has yet to substantively shake the perception among many Americans that it was involved in the 9/11 attacks. In addition to these lingering questions, The New York Times reported that State Department officials have their own questions regarding the potential that Riyadh’s war in Yemen could implicate US and other officials in possible war crimes. According to the lengthy investigation, lawyers at the Department of State have warned, since the end of the Obama Administration, that “American officials, including the secretary of state, could be charged with war crimes for their role in arming the Saudi coalition.” The article suggests that US officials fear they could be arrested in foreign countries that recognize universal jurisdiction over war crimes (such as Germany). The Trump Administration’s institutional desire to arm the Saudis is evident in the president’s frequent statements to that effect, thus increasing concerns among US career diplomats. Moreover, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to circumvent Congress and free up an arms sale to the kingdom has prompted an internal investigation at Foggy Bottom.

In looking at the warm reception—and lack of congressional scrutiny—that Saudi Arabia’s neighbors received this week as a result of normalizing relations with Israel, one must wonder if Riyadh may want to pursue that step for the sole purpose of trying to deflect lawmakers’ ire.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Want to Preserve Israel’s QME. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) and eight of his Democratic House colleagues sent a letter to President Trump calling on him to keep Congress abreast of any military sale that could compromise Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME). Israeli QME is meant to ensure that Israel can successfully protect itself from any attacks by a neighbor or coalition of neighbors; in short, it safeguards Israel’s military technological superiority over all other states in the Middle East. It is actually mandated by US law that Washington helps Israel uphold this edge.

Therefore, when it was reported that the UAE would seek to secure a fleet of advanced F-35 fighter jets as a result of its normalization agreement with Israel, some in Washington worried that the Trump Administration was actually undermining Israel’s long-term security for short-term “peace agreements.” Schneider and his colleagues called on the administration to keep them informed of potential advanced weapons sales and warned that they would scuttle any they fear could undermine Israeli security.

Rep. Sherman Touts Support for Israel as Qualification for HFAC Chair. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) is lobbying vigorously to secure the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee should Democrats maintain control of the House after the November elections. With current chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York) retiring after losing his primary race for reelection, Sherman is running against fellow Democrats Gregory Meeks (New York) and Joaquin Castro (Texas) for the committee gavel. To distinguish himself, Sherman has recently trumpeted his pro-Israel policies as one reason to qualify him to chair the foreign affairs committee. This week, he tied himself to Engel’s record and criticized his rivals for boycotting Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2015 address before a joint session of Congress. It is unclear if Sherman’s strategy will pay off. The Democratic Party’s top brass continue to be staunch supporters of Israel and would see a Sherman chairmanship as an asset; however, the party itself is growing ever more progressive when it comes to US support for Israel and to the question of Palestine. It is reported that the grassroots clearly favor Castro in this race.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Sudan PM as Families Try to Derail Settlement. This week, Secretary Pompeo held a call with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss developments in Sudan, including recently announced peace agreements between the government and rebels. According to the readout, the pair also spoke of their two countries’ partnership in ensuring Khartoum’s democratic transition. To this latter point, it is difficult to imagine Hamdok did not seek clarity from Pompeo about Washington’s deliberation on lifting Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST)—this was not mentioned in the meeting report.

It has long been reported that Washington and Khartoum were nearing a deal that would see the latter pay settlements to the victims—and families of victims—of the 1998 terrorist attacks in East Africa, in exchange for closing the cases and de-listing Sudan as an SST. However, some in Congress—which must consent if Sudan is to be removed from the SST list—are wary of moving forward with the agreement after the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks weighed in. They assert that Sudan also had a role in the September 11 attacks and thus any compensation package should consider their losses as well. If Khartoum were de-listed before the settlement and its immunity is reinstated, then any claims against Sudan for its role in the 9/11 attacks could not be considered at a future time.

US Intelligence Says Iran Considered Assassinating US Ambassador. The US intelligence community has reportedly determined that Iran, in retaliation for the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, has considered a plot to kill the US ambassador to South Africa. Reports indicate that officials have notified the ambassador as part of their “duty to warn” and the intelligence agencies continue to monitor the situation.

2) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Commander Says Troops Being Targeted in Iraq. General Frank McKenzie of US Central Command told reporters this week that not only are Iraqi militia attacks on US troops based in Iraq continuing, but there has been a sustained increase in those attacks since last year. While attacks have been more frequent, the number of rockets fired in each attack is generally lower and the attacks have been less lethal overall. McKenzie insinuated that the attacks were influenced by Iran’s desire to see the United States exit Iraq. Having failed to persuade the Iraqi government to push Americans out of the country diplomatically, McKenzie said that Iranian-backed Iraqi militias are now trying a new tactic.