Yemen, Khashoggi, detainees, and nuclear technology are driving a deep-seated congressional backlash against Riyadh.
As anticipated, the new U.S. Congress is proving to be an inhospitable environment for Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Arab allies, including the United Arab Emirates. Despite a slow start for the 116th session due to a prolonged U.S. government shutdown, a number of issues have already been tackled by both the House of Representatives, with a Democratic majority, and the Senate, with a slimmer Republican majority. They have arisen through the full range of available legislative prerogatives: hearings, formal letters, press statements, and communications to the executive branch or media. And both Democrats seeking to critique the administration on a partisan basis and Republican internationalists seeking to push it in a more traditionally hawkish direction have been attracted to Gulf-related issues, especially regarding Saudi Arabia. Predictably, the close association between the Saudi government and the administration of President Donald J. Trump – and his family – is leaving Riyadh an exposed and relatively defenseless political target for administration critics on a range of issues. These issues reflect a growing divide between Saudi Arabia and Congress, and have great relevance for several other Gulf Arab countries as well.
The Yemen War
The biggest issue roiling U.S.-Gulf Arab relations is the Yemen war, which continues to be used by both the administration’s Democratic opponents and internationalist Republicans to pressure the executive branch. In mid-March, the Republican-controlled Senate broke with Trump on two issues: mandating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from most aspects of the Yemen war and reversing the national emergency declaration to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Resistance to U.S. participation in Yemen has therefore dovetailed with a growing sense by members of Congress from both parties that there has been a usurpation of the legislature’s constitutional war-declaring and war-making powers, producing a historic vote.
The March 13 Senate resolution sets up what is likely to be the first time that a majority of both houses of Congress have used the War Powers Resolution of 1973 since its original passage in efforts to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from a conflict. If the House and Senate can agree on the same language and pass that in coming days, which is likely given the existing votes in the two chambers, it would be the first major effort by the legislature to push back against the executive’s increasing monopolization of war-making powers, which the Constitution specifically grants to Congress and not the White House.
However, the practical impact on U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict is likely to be very small, if any at all. The final language will include exemptions for missions to combat extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which are a major part of the U.S. participation in the UAE-led counterinsurgency in southern Yemen. More importantly, any such measure will almost certainly be vetoed by Trump, and there is no indication of supermajorities in either chamber to overturn that and make this law. So, the impact on the separation of powers and the U.S. engagement in Yemen will be largely symbolic.
The rejection of the Yemen war marks a serious breach of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, at least on the part of Congress, with many members linking their votes to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other concerns regarding the kingdom’s leadership. The votes were the culmination of two years of pending legislation in both the House and Senate that finally came together mid-March.
The Gulf countries principally involved in this conflict, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, should recognize the stakes reflected in this unusual pushback against the White House by Congress, including seven senators from his own party. In the long run, it suggests that almost any administration succeeding Trump’s will reflect a similar disapproval of and determination not to be involved in this conflict, should it persist beyond the current administration. Weapons sales to the UAE are also threatened by reports that U.S. weapons supplied to the Emiratis were discovered in the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliated militia groups in southern Yemen. In short, on Yemen, Congress is no longer a Saudi or even a UAE ally.
Jamal Khashoggi Murder
The continuing controversy over the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 also remains a major source of tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia and between Congress and the White House. The president, secretary of state, and other senior officials have repeatedly cast doubt on the ability of the United States to determine the degree of culpability of senior Saudi officials, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Pressure built to the point where, in early February, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir publicly asked Congress to withhold judgment and let the Saudi judicial and investigative process run its course before reaching any conclusion and, especially, not to impose additional sanctions on Saudi Arabia or its government officials, as some lawmakers are proposing.
But an act of Congress in late 2018 mandated a finding by the White House under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to determine if a foreign person, specifically the Saudi crown prince, was responsible for this action. The Trump administration did not report a clear finding by the February 7 deadline to Congress, which both Republicans and Democrats identified as a failure to abide by the law. The CIA has issued an intelligence assessment suggesting the crown prince was likely responsible, but that assessment has not been embraced by the president. It’s likely, therefore, that the Khashoggi issue will continue to be a major irritant between Washington and Riyadh and, probably, between Congress and the White House.
Women and Other Detainees in Saudi Arabia and Other Gulf Countries
A closely related source of tension between Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the new Congress is human rights concerns, and particularly the arrest and treatment of certain detainees, above all women’s rights activists, several of whom have reportedly been tortured while in custody. For much of 2018 the issue grew in prominence in Washington but did not receive a great deal of attention from Congress. However, 2019 promises to be different. On February 13, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on Saudi Arabia to “immediately and unconditionally” release these detainees, including Hatoon al-Fassi, Aziza al-Yousef, and Loujain al-Hathloul. The resolution also strongly condemns the arrest and treatment of these women’s rights activists. On March 1, two members of Congress formally asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to personally intervene in the case of Aziza al-Yousef. Many observers, including prominent media outlets, have noted a connection between this intensified concern and the Khashoggi murder. Given that at least some of the arrested women are now being tried on extremely serious charges, attention to this issue is likely to increase.
Similar concerns have been expressed in Congress regarding a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen, Dr. Walid Fitaihi, who has reportedly been detained without charges. Fitaihi’s son alleged the doctor is being tortured when he spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference hosted by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. At a March 6 hearing for the approval of new ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, senators from both parties expressed serious concerns about detainees, including Fitaihi, the Yemen war, and a number of other Saudi actions. Indeed, the prominent Republican Senator Marco Rubio described Mohammed bin Salman as having “gone full gangster,” and called him “reckless” and “ruthless.”
A related issue being raised in Congress, including at the March 6 confirmation hearing, are persistent charges, which Saudi Arabia denies, that its diplomatic officials have been helping Saudi citizens flee pending prosecutions for serious crimes in the United States. The issue has been formally raised with the State Department by several lawmakers, including Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. If this issue is not satisfactorily resolved, and more cases come to light, it could dovetail with the human rights considerations to compound the growing bill of particulars in Congress against Riyadh.
Nuclear Technology Sales to Saudi Arabia
A further issue dividing the new Congress from both Saudi Arabia and the White House is proposals by the Trump administration to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia for the development of a Saudi nuclear energy program based on the need to preserve hydrocarbons for export and tapping into the country’s extensive uranium reserves for domestic energy consumption. A 2010 agreement with the UAE follows the traditional “123” protocol that prohibits purchasers of reactors from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium to prevent any risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. However, Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries with extensive uranium reserves it can mine that also wants to make extensive use of reactors to generate its own electricity. Critics note that the kingdom could purchase enriched uranium more cheaply than creating its own enrichment process, but Saudi Arabia counters that the right to enrich was recognized in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, with Iran, as well as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Riyadh will not accept more restrictions than what were asked of Tehran. Moreover, as the Trump administration frequently notes, Saudi Arabia could purchase reactors from a wide range of other potential suppliers, including South Korea. However, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly suggested it would prefer to make the United States its main partner in developing its own domestic nuclear energy industry.
In the context of the Yemen war and other concerns, however, this prospect has been greeted with considerable alarm in Congress and much of the mainstream U.S. media. On February 19, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform issued the report “Multiple Whistleblowers Raise Grave Concerns with White House Efforts to Transfer Sensitive U.S. Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia.” The report raises serious concerns about the process through which the proposed sales are being advanced and about undue influence, cronyism, and corruption on the part of current and former administration officials involved in the conversations, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The report also outlines previously confidential proposals by six major U.S. energy corporations and the consortium IP3 International to the Saudi government for a joint nuclear energy plan for the country – the “Iron Bridge Program.” This has come under considerable criticism as well. Democrats say they have begun a full-scale House inquiry into the plans and other proposals to sell U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia with or without a 123 agreement.
Bipartisan initiatives have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would require any nuclear technology sales to Saudi Arabia to conform to a 123 agreement approved by Congress. Interestingly, however, on March 3 the Pentagon confirmed that Lockheed Martin would be receiving its first payment from Saudi Arabia for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-defense system. The $15 billion sale, which also involves Boeing and Raytheon, does not appear to be presently at jeopardy in Congress despite the growing concerns regarding U.S.-Saudi relations and other weapon sales. The size of the contract combined with the defensive nature of the THAAD system and the existence of alternatives such as the Russian S-400 anti-missile system may protect the viability of the sale despite growing congressional exasperation with Saudi policies and conduct.
Alarm Bells are Ringing
All of this is bad news for Riyadh and its Gulf Arab allies, notably the UAE. It’s a clear barometer of how damaged the long-standing but often fraught U.S.-Saudi alliance has become outside of the bubble at the center of the Trump administration. The pushback is close to unanimous among Democrats and often involves key Republicans, many of them traditionally proponents of close U.S.-Saudi relations. The pending Yemen War Powers Resolution bill will almost certainly be vetoed and not become law, but it’s the strongest indication that a historic rupture is brewing that, in some ways, is going far beyond earlier crises such as the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Riyadh and its Gulf partners are on notice that on the range of issues cited, and several pending ones that could develop during this congressional session, they have lost the sympathy of many members of Congress from both parties.
That’s plainly not irreversible. But Gulf Arab countries will have to pay close attention to their relationship with the Democrats, who remain a powerful part of the U.S. government, once again in control of the House of Representatives and well-positioned to regain the Senate in 2020. Despite Gulf states’ disappointment with the second term of the administration of Barack Obama and strong relations with the Trump administration thus far, it’s vital to keep uppermost in mind that their alliance is with the United States, not with the executive branch and certainly not with the Trump administration, let alone Donald Trump and his family. The U.S. government as a whole, as well as the broader society, should be the target audience for positive re-engagement.
Any effective U.S. ally has to have good relations with both Democrats and Republicans or risk becoming a partisan issue and therefore going through wildly fluctuating fortunes as the incessant pendulum swings in U.S. domestic politics. The health of the U.S.-Gulf Arab partnership can only be maintained by taking each other’s sensitivities seriously, respecting each other’s interests and values, and placing a strong spotlight on the shared goals for the future of the Middle East that haven’t changed. Otherwise, the warning signs are signaling a historic shift away from bipartisan support for this partnership to a much more partisan and damaging division on the U.S.-Gulf Arab alliance.