The Fight for the Post-Trump Future of US-Saudi Relations Begins


Marcus Montgomery

Fmr. Congressional Resident Fellow

Arab Center Washington DC

Over the last few weeks, Arab Center Washington DC has chronicled how the Trump Administration has angled to cement its Middle East policy in such a way that President-elect Joe Biden cannot reverse the strategy. While those efforts have been clear and concerted—and some believe they are perhaps irreversible when it comes to Israel and Iran—US policy toward Saudi Arabia for the next four years is very much unsettled. The Saudis themselves know as much, preparing for a colder embrace from the Biden Administration than what they received from President Donald Trump, his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

As has been the case for the majority of President Trump’s nearly four years in office, the US Congress is poised to be the most combative institution toward Saudi Arabia and, in a matter of months, Riyadh will not have a partner in the White House willing to unconditionally support its riskiest and most reckless behavior. Democrats, who will continue to control a majority in the House of Representatives during the next Congress and are in a position to control the slightest of majorities in the Senate, went on record this week in calling for a fundamental reassessment of US-Saudi relations.

On November 20th, the organization dedicated to freedom of expression, PEN America, held a counter-summit to raise awareness about Saudi Arabia human rights abuses ahead of the kingdom’s hosting of the virtual meeting of the Group of 20 (G20). In keeping with the G20 tradition of providing speaking platforms to officials from these 20 powerful countries, PEN America gave lawmakers and officials from the United States and Europe the opportunity to speak out against what one participant described as Riyadh’s “rampant repression.” Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff (California), Suzanne Bonamici (Oregon), Lois Frankel (Florida), Susan Wild (Pennsylvania), and Gerry Connolly (Virginia) provided prerecorded video messages for the virtual event, as did Democratic Senators Bob Menendez (New Jersey), Ron Wyden (Oregon), and Ben Cardin (Maryland). Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) delivered the event’s keynote address.

These members of Congress roundly criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices as repressive. They also pointed out that the increased crackdown on journalists, intellectuals, and activists—both at home and abroad—comes at the same time as the kingdom and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) tout a drive toward economic and social reform. In no uncertain terms, these lawmakers promised to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the government’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi—even proposing that Biden declassify the intelligence community’s report of who ordered the murder—and for its abysmal human rights record more generally. A few of the speakers at PEN America’s event also raised the plight of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist who has been imprisoned without charge for over two years. Al-Hathloul’s imprisonment, according to the legislators, is the most glaring case of Riyadh’s hypocrisy under the rule of MbS; the Saudi government continues to imprison and abuse her and other activists for advocating for policy changes to which MbS later acquiesced (such as allowing Saudi women to drive).

Senators Menendez, Cardin, Murphy, and seven of their Senate colleagues wrote to the Saudi ambassador to the United States this week to further push Riyadh to address the cases of Loujain al-Hathloul and the other women’s rights activists. Just one day after the date of the senators’ letter, it was reported that Saudi Arabia decided not only to refuse to release these political prisoners but also to undertake what al-Hathloul’s sister describes as an “illegal and unjust” trial predicated on potentially coerced confessions.

Away from Capitol Hill, US officials in the Trump Administration maintain that US-Saudi relations are too important to Washington’s interests in the region to jeopardize. Deputy Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking and US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid participated in a virtual conference this week where they both argued, as Lenderking phrased it, that the United States “cannot afford” to marginalize Saudi Arabia and that the bilateral relationship must remain strong and engaged. Abizaid, as would be expected from an ambassador serving in a foreign capital, lavished praise on the kingdom, describing Riyadh as an integral partner in the Middle East. There was no talk of “shared values” or any platitudes that one might expect when discussing US allies and partners, but Ambassador Abizaid was steadfast in his belief that US-Saudi relations will remain strong as long as the two share robust economic, military, intelligence, and counterterrorism cooperation. In sort of a veiled warning, Abizaid did state that while the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is currently “sound and strategically important,” the next few years will require “care and understanding,” perhaps insinuating that too much American pressure could tarnish what he views as a sparkling relationship.

Senator Chris Murphy, the aforementioned keynote speaker at the PEN America summit, described what could very well prove to be the most realistic path forward for US-Saudi relations. Those who seek a near severance of US-Saudi ties might have been disheartened to hear Senator Murphy echo Ambassador Abizaid’s sentiment that Saudi Arabia is “one of [the United States’] most important relationships in the world.” However, those content with the Trump Administration’s carte blanch support for Riyadh will be equally disappointed to know that Murphy, as with many others on Capitol Hill, advocates for a fundamental reassessment of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

According to Senator Murphy, it is past time for Washington to recognize that Riyadh is a deeply imperfect ally and that US engagement with the kingdom, for too long, has been skewed in Riyadh’s favor and in a way that is not advantageous to the United States. He said the United States must elevate human rights and take a firm stance against Saudi Arabia’s continued support for a brand of Islam that often forms the building blocks of global extremist movements that target the United States and others. Murphy noted that people will often argue for a stronger embrace of Saudi Arabia by warning that the Saudis would find another security partner if the United States applies too much pressure on the kingdom to undertake difficult reforms. Murphy noted that the Saudis have made this argument since the 1970s and his response was that Washington can afford to simply drive a hard bargain with Riyadh. As he explained, there is no substitute for a strong working relationship with the United States and, frankly, that Saudi Arabia needs Washington more than Washington needs Saudi Arabia.

In what might be a preview of what is to come, a bipartisan group of representatives introduced a nonbinding concurrent resolution (H. Con. Res. 123) that would require the president to withdraw troops from unauthorized military action in Yemen, including “the assignment of United States Armed Forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of the Saudi or United Arab Emirates in hostilities against Yemen’s Houthis.”

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Joint Resolutions of DisapprovalSenate Democrats Robert Menendez (New Jersey) and Chris Murphy (Connecticut) worked with Republican Rand Paul (Kentucky) to introduce four joint resolutions of disapproval in an effort to stop proposed arms sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The legislation includes S. J. Res. 777879, and 80, targeting the billions of dollars of proposed sales of drones, F-35 fighter jets, missiles, bombs, and other munitions. To be successful, veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and the House must pass the same joint resolutions of disapproval. To further this effort, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced four corresponding resolutions of disapproval in the House (H. J. Res. 100101102, and 103).

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State/US Commission on International Religious Freedom

Secretary Pompeo Wraps Up Tour of the Middle EastSecretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded his visit to the Middle East this week with stops in Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Pompeo met with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, UAE and of Saudi Arabia in his visits to both countries. In Qatar, he met with the foreign minister and the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to discuss US-Qatari relations. The biggest news of the week came from Saudi Arabia, however, where Pompeo held a trilateral meeting with MbS and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The brief, secretive meeting was reportedly set up by the United States to reward Israel for assassinating a leading al-Qaeda official in Iran.

Upon his return to Washington, Secretary Pompeo hosted Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al Sabah for the US-Kuwait Joint Strategic Dialogue.

Advancing Religious Freedom in Sudan. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held another virtual briefing to examine the state of freedom of religion in the Arab world, this time focusing on Sudan. Two vice chairs of the commission, Anurima Bhargava and Tony Perkins, joined Sudan’s Minister of Religious Affairs Nasreldin Mufrih to discuss how Khartoum’s transitional government has moved to undertake legal and institutional changes to promote human rights, including freedom of religion.

All three speakers highlighted key ways the new government has acted to institute reforms, including repealing blasphemy and apostasy laws, affording Christians the ability to miss work for Sunday church services, and recognizing indigenous religious practices. As a result of these promising steps, Bhargava and Perkins joined the rest of USCIRF in recommending that Sudan be moved from the State Department’s class of “countries of particular concern” in its mandated annual report on religious freedom, to a special watch list. In addition, Vice Chair Perkins said that the USCIRF offered a spate of other policy recommendations to the State Department, including providing technical and financial support to aid Sudan in undertaking institutional change; supporting Khartoum’s implementation of constitutional, legal, and transitional justice reform; and encouraging the transitional government to host UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom Ahmed Shaheed, after the pandemic, to enable the United Nations to observe Khartoum’s progress.

State Department Officials Discuss the Future of US Interests in the Middle East. As mentioned earlier, Deputy Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking participated in a virtual conference to discuss US policy in the Middle East. Aside from speaking on Saudi Arabia, Lenderking—who had just returned from a trip to Bahrain earlier in the week—used most of his time to outline policies the United States must pursue in the coming years. He shared this task with Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood, who also outlined the interests Washington should prioritize in the region.

Lenderking offered a tempered and thoughtful set of recommendations for the next administration to consider. While Hood recounted what he considered the Trump Administration’s successes—policies that the Biden Administration will most likely discard—Lenderking recommended that Washington focus on remaining engaged in the Middle East, in a positive way, in order to pursue diplomatic talks with Iran, negotiate a political solution to the conflict in Yemen, and heal the rift between Gulf Cooperation Council states. Hood recommended that Washington offer greater support for UN efforts to end the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya moving forward, which the Biden Administration will most likely pursue.

2) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Commander Talks Threats to US Interests in the Middle East. At the same conference, the commander of US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, Jr., offered an update on the US military posture in the Middle East. He first outlined the Pentagon’s two main strategic interests in the region as maintaining stability—including continuing the flow of global commerce and trade through the Gulf—and eliminating the threat of terrorism. He spent less time on the latter, explaining that the United States’ strategy has been to put forth “overwhelming pressure and unceasing overwatch” in places like Iraq and Syria to ensure terrorist groups do not have safe havens from which to plan attacks against the United States and its partners.

On regional and global stability, General McKenzie belabored the point that Iran is the single gravest threat, arguing that Iran props up proxy groups around the region in pursuit of hegemonic expansion and control. While it is expected that the Trump Administration—filled as it is with vehement Iran hawks—would speak about Iran in such terms, it is of concern that a key leader in the Pentagon would speak about “hegemonic” expansion. Similarly, in his aforementioned remarks at the same conference, Ambassador Abizaid also spoke about Iran as some malign hegemon bent on regional domination. Abizaid served in the US Army for decades before his ambassadorship, indicating that there is some institutional belief at the Department of Defense that Tehran seeks to dominate the region.

This is problematic because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Iran’s malign behavior in the region, including through the establishment of and coordination with proxy groups, is defensive in nature. Understanding the differences between Iran’s designs and aspirations in the region is critical because they would require very different policy prescriptions. If the United States understands Iran’s behavior as fundamentally defensive, albeit still as destabilizing, that would offer the United States a slate of policy options, including greater diplomacy and military drawdowns. However, if Washington views Tehran as an unrelenting hegemon bent on dominating every other country in the region, then policy-makers may conclude that the only solution to that problem is to overthrow the hegemonic government itself.