To the Hill and beyond

Saudi Arabia under pressure from Congress as White House continues recalibration

Catie Edmondson reporting in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — When Joseph R. Biden Jr. pledged during his campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” should he become president, congressional Democrats who had been pushing for months to impose sanctions on the kingdom for increasingly brazen, violent behavior breathed a sigh of relief.

But nearly three months into his administration, his allies in Congress are pushing Mr. Biden and his team to take a harder line against the country, concerned that what the White House has called a careful recalibration of the United States-Saudi relationship has not gone far enough.

It is becoming clear that the Biden administration’s release in February of the long-anticipated intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was not going to signal the end of tension in Saudi-US relations, particularly on Capitol Hill where the kingdom has struggled to gain a foothold for several years now.

Unsatisfied with the steps taken by Biden after the report’s release, the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 25th unanimously approved two bills targeting Saudi Arabia. The first, introduced by Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, would bar Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and officials involved in the Khashoggi murder from entering the United States.

“I applaud the Biden Administration for naming MBS as Khashoggi’s killer, but it undercuts our message to Saudi Arabia if we accuse him of the crime and then do nothing to hold him accountable,” Malinowski said after introducing the bill. “The law is clear that the Secretary of State must apply a visa ban on persons he knows are linked to gross human rights abuses—exactly what the Khashoggi report lays out. Our bill makes this doubly clear, and reminds the world that in America, no one, whether a president or a prince, is above the law.”

The second bill is called the “Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act”, and it was introduced by Democrat Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, where Khashoggi used to live. The bill aims to limit military and intelligence cooperation between the US and Saudi Arabia if the president finds that the kingdom has engaged in forced repatriation, intimidation, or killing of dissidents in other countries; the unjust imprisonment of American citizens or residents or placing travel restrictions on them or their family members; and the torture of detainees in the custody of the Saudi government.

Democratic aide told CNN that approving the two bills represents “a significant and punitive rebuke” of Saudi Arabia’s behaviour. “That would be the first bipartisan action that Congress has taken on really putting some punitive measures on Saudi Arabia,” the aide added.

Additionally, the committee also voted unanimously to pass an amendment to the “Saudi Arabia Accountability for Gross Violations of Human Rights Act of 2019”. The amendment, introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, requires US intelligence officials to release a report on any private, commercial, or non-governmental organisation controlled by the crown prince or his associates if these entities played any role in the killing of Khashoggi. The amendment also requires the Department of State to certify whether any of those entities are sanctionable under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Although the first two bills should be of greater concern to Saudi Arabia, it is the third one that would probably receive more attention in the kingdom. Saudi pundits strongly despise Omar who they accuse of seeking to damage the kingdom’s relations with the US.

“The Americans are well aware that the value and importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia for American interests in the region are too great to be held hostage to the shenanigans of the American left or the tweets of Ilhan Omar, and that a long history of strategic cooperation between the two countries to ensure regional security and the stability of energy markets cannot be ignored,” columnist Khalid al-Sulaiman wrote in Okaz earlier this year. “The United States needs Saudi Arabia as much as Saudi Arabia needs the US, and relations between countries are based on mutual interests and joint cooperation!”

Amid Saudi troubles on the Hill and beyond, the voice of Saudi ambassador in the US Princess Reema bint Bandar is curiously missing. The princess was appointed to the post two years ago with high expectations considering her reputation and background. She grew up in Washington while her father served as ambassador from 1983 to 2005 and attended George Washington University. We don’t how active she might have been behind the scenes, but her public statements are few and far between. Besides speaking with Politico for a profile shortly after arriving in DC in 2019, she has rarely appeared in US media.

Liberals in Congress are likely to remain frustrated as Biden seeks to strike a balance between appeasing Democrats and keeping the door open to cooperation with Saudi Arabia, particularly on regional issues such as ending the Yemen war and renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal. But the White House will also argue that the president is delivering on his promise to recalibrate relations with the kingdom by taking actions such as withdrawing forces and missile defence systems. According to the Wall Street Journal:

In moves that haven’t been previously reported, the U.S. has removed at least three Patriot antimissile batteries from the Gulf region, including one from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, that had been put in place in recent years to help protect American forces.

Other capabilities, including an aircraft carrier and surveillance systems, are being diverted from the Middle East to answer military needs elsewhere around the globe, according to U.S. officials. Additional reductions are under consideration, officials said.

American officials described the withdrawals as part of a larger strategy to reduce US military footprint in the Middle East and shift focus to global competitors, including Russia and China. The latter last month signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. The deal has been long in the making, but its announcement did not go unnoticed in the kingdom which beat Russia to keep its ranking as China’s top crude supplier in 2020.

Commenting on the China-Iran deal, Mohmmed al-Saed wrote in Okaz:

The big question is what will be the fate of the Middle East region in the presence of an advanced Chinese claw that puts its feet on the shores of the Gulf for the first time, and what will countries like Saudi Arabia, at the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, do as the Chinese planet approaches its eastern shores.

Saudi Arabia, which has lived for more than five decades in the shadow of the struggle between Western capitalism and communism, built its capabilities and development and faced existential challenges and risks. It is capable of balancing the scale between two adventurous forces, based on an understanding of the change in the balance of power, the struggle for influence, and the possibility of the rise of China to be a pole competing with America, as well as building a basket of relationships and interests with a Saudi Arabia seeking to be a logistical hub between East and West, advanced tourism options, and an unprecedented technological dream for future generations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Saudi Arabia last month and met with the crown prince who said “Saudi Arabia firmly supports China’s legitimate position on the issues related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, opposes interfering in China’s internal affairs under any pretext, and rejects the attempt by certain parties to sow dissension between China and the Islamic world”, according to a readout by the Xinhua news agency.

The Saudi readout of the same meeting simply said the two sides “reviewed aspects of Saudi-Chinese relations” and “the latest developments relating to regional and international events” without elaborating much further.