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Courtney Freer

Trump and Congress face off over Saudi ties

Republican Senator Graham has been particularly outspoken, calling Mohammed bin Salman 'a wrecking ball' [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 December, 2018

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Comment: The war in Yemen and Khashoggi's murder expose the rift between Trump and Congress on US relations with Saudi Arabia, writes Courtney Freer.
Official reactions in the United States to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi have ranged from outrage to denial.

When it comes to Senate, however, we have seen rather remarkable bipartisan support for holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder, especially after 
the CIA concluded that he ordered the killing.

Last Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution stating their willingness to demonstrate Saudi government involvement in Khashoggi's killing.

The resolution was introduced by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, stating that the Senate "
has a high level of confidence," that Mohammed bin Salman "was complicit in the murder".

The resolution also supports the release of blogger Raif Badawi, women's rights activists, and other political prisoners held in the Kingdom. For its part, the White House has levied sanctions against 17 Saudis said to have been involved in the murder but has stopped short of holding the crown prince accountable for the crime.

Senator Graham has been particularly outspoken, calling Mohammed bin Salman "a wrecking ball" and said he is "toxic" and "has got to go" just two weeks after Khashoggi disappearedRevelations published last week in The New York Times about Jared Kushner's involvement in counselling the crown prince on how to handle fallout from the murder have only increased outrage that was present even before the CIA's report.

This 'bromance' shapes not only policy towards Saudi Arabia but instead the entire Middle East

Indeed, it is no longer possible to deny the essentially personal nature of the US-Saudi relationship under President Trump - a relationship that has notably coloured American involvement elsewhere in the region.

As Martin Indyk explained, this "bromance" shapes not only policy towards Saudi Arabia but instead the entire Middle East, despite the fact that Kushner has little to no knowledge of Saudi Arabia or the broader region.

Moral outrage over Jamal Khashoggi's murder and the Trump administration's warm relationship with Saudi Arabia has led to greater scrutiny of Saudi human rights abuses in Yemen and American involvement in the Yemen campaign.

Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a resolution that would require Trump to withdraw troops in or "affecting" Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al-Qaeda; they need a majority to pass since this bill falls under the War Powers Act.

Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) are also expected to introduce 
a bill that would mandate the imposition of sanctions within 30 days of anyone involved in Khashoggi's death, including "any official of the government of Saudi Arabia or member of the royal family" determined to have been involved.

it is no longer possible to deny the essentially personal nature of the US-Saudi relationship under President Trump

This legislation would also require a report within 30 days on Saudi Arabia's human rights record, and, to help address the Yemen crisis, legislation would stop weapons sales and ban the US military from refuelling Saudi military aircraft.

Backing President Trump's position, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis insisted that no concrete evidence ties the Crown Prince to the killing, and have urged senators not to downgrade relations with the kingdom.

Nonetheless, hours later the Senate voted 63-37 to take up a resolution aimed to limit American involvement in Yemen.

One potential obstacle to the Senate's increasingly active stance on Saudi Arabia is the 
ascension of Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a Trump loyalist, to succeed Corker as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee next year. To bypass this potential problem, Senators supporting legislation related to Saudi Arabia could request that their bill be put directly on the Senate calendar.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is set to be briefed on Khashoggi and Yemen this week, which Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has said could help forge a united and coherent legislative path.

Notably absent in this flurry of legislative activity are Saudi lobbyists.

when the Senate voted on a resolution to withdraw American military support from the Yemen war, Mohammed bin Salman visited Capitol Hill to speak with senators, but now that this resolution has re-emerged, the Crown Prince has not returned to Washington. His brother the ambassador Khalid bin Salman only returned to the US a week ago.

five of the many lobbying firms working for Saudi Arabia quit after Khashoggi's death, which could be taken as proof of diminishing Saudi power - or could reflect less of a need for lobbying, with Trump and Kushner firmly in the Saudi camp.

Indeed, President Trump is working to defeat the Yemen resolution, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis met with senators on the day of the vote last month, cautioning them that Iran could become more influential without American support of Saudi Arabia.

Making Trump and Kushner even more central in the US-Saudi relationship is the fact that 
the White House is still yet to appoint an ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Trump's actions when it comes to the US-Saudi relationship reveal just how personal his foreign policy has become. 

Trump continues to run his foreign policy as a businessman

Where past presidents have been guided by normative considerations and often misguided notions of promoting democracy in the Middle East, Trump continues to run his foreign policy as a businessman, and the kingdom, he believes, is a good investment.

Indeed, just last year, the Trump International Hotel received $270,000 in business from Saudi Arabia. Before that windfall and prior to Kushner's friendship with Mohammed bin Salman, in September 2016, during discussion about imposition of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) in Congress, Trump slammed President Obama's veto of the bill, calling it "shameful". The law was ultimately passed and allows victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia's government.

In his book, 'Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!', Trump calls Saudi Arabia "the world's biggest funder of terrorism".

The Senate's activism when it comes to the US-Saudi relationship is an attempt to infuse American policy with some normative values, and curb a transactional and ultimately personal enterprise.

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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