Will bad press focus Congress' attention on Saudi Arabia?

When will bad press focus Congress' attention on Saudi Arabia?
4 min read
10 Jun, 2019
Comment: Less than a year after Khashoggi's murder, Saudi Arabia continues to act with impunity in Yemen and Sudan. It's time for Congress to act, writes Marcus Montgomery.
Even after Khashoggi's murder, Trump approved the transfer of sensitive nuclear information to Saudi Arabia[AFP]
It's been over eight months since a Saudi hit squad murdered Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate.

Since then, Riyadh has managed to survive the onslaught of criticism and anger in western capitals. Indeed, Saudi Arabia's standing in Washington, buttressed by unyielding and nearly unconditional support from the Trump administration, was tested by members of Congress but ultimately emerged from the crisis intact.

But a spate of recent reports has the potential to reheat simmering frustration towards Riyadh, to Khashoggi affair-levels of outrage.

Lawmakers were already steaming over the Trump administration's plan to circumvent their oversight role and move forward with 22 proposed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Recent reporting illustrates that one of those sales aims to accord Saudi Arabia the ability to produce key parts of advanced US bombs.

Additional reporting on Saudi Arabia's defense posture uncovered that it has been advancing a ballistic missile programe, known to the US intelligence committee, and that the Trump administration has done nothing to constrain Riyadh in the endeavour.

While the administration sees Saudi Arabia as a potential fireman in the broader Middle East and North Africa, many of its policies are more akin to those of an arsonist

Finally, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) determined that, even after Khashoggi's murder, the Trump administration made the decision to approve the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology information to Saudi Arabia; this despite the fact that Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has repeatedly refused to swear off pursuing a nuclear weapon.

In Sudan, too, Saudi Arabia is pursuing a policy at odds with the expressed desires of many in Congress. While the official US position has been to urge the transitional military council (TMC) Khartoum to hand over political power to civilians in a timely manner, new reports suggest that Riyadh has blessed, perhaps even urged, the TMC undertake a brutal crackdown on protesters that has left dozens dead with fears that the total is much higher.

These reports are glaring reminders for those on Capitol Hill that, while the administration sees Saudi Arabia as a potential fireman in the broader Middle East and North Africa, many of its policies are more akin to those of an arsonist.

Additionally, the aforementioned developments signal to many in Congress that the Saudis are waltzing around, acting with impunity and, since the Trump administration has practiced fealty towards Riyadh, they themselves must act to constrain Saudi Arabia and demand that its actions further US interest, not undermine them.

Read more: How a legal loophole is helping Trump sell arms to Saudi Arabia

In the immediate future, the Senate will consider joint resolutions of disapproval on the 22 aforementioned arms sales in an effort to reassert Congressional oversight of such deals. If successful, senators would potentially block Saudi Arabia from receiving the weapons and technology it desires and that are used to perpetuate the brutal war in Yemen.

But, many in Congress, including a great number of Democrats, want to leverage the "must-pass" nature of annual spending bills to force a more lasting shift in US policy towards Saudi Arabia. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, recently outlined how he plans to try and "place new restrictions on US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen."

With enough GOP support, lawmakers could insert language from bills like the War Powers Resolution or the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act in the defense spending bill, and dare President Trump to take the politically unwise move to veto it simply to keep up unfettered support for Riyadh.

There are other ways to try and counter the current administration's policies towards Saudi Arabia, including suing the Trump administration over the president's veto of the War Powers Resolution or passing any of these pieces of legislation as standalone bills, but including provisions in spending bills is likely the most politically expedient path for Congress.

These developments signal to many in Congress that the Saudis are waltzing around, acting with impunity

As the damning reports about Saudi Arabia's - and the UAE's - policies throughout the region pile up, more and more lawmakers in Washington are going to want to see the Gulf states' policies checked.

It says something about Riyadh's policies, that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who is normally a vocal cheerleader for President Trump, has broken with the president on Saudi Arabia. If a few other powerful Republican senators split with the White House too, US policy towards Saudi Arabia could undergo a major recalibration. For Saudi Arabia, it should be concerned that recent bad press will focus a normally absent Congress on it.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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