American lawmakers are pressing US President Donald Trump to adopt a much harder line against Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress will attempt to force Trump’s hand by passing legislation to cut arms sales to the Kingdom and launch an investigation into why the President has continued to back Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, despite the conclusions of America’s own intelligence community that the 33-year-old knew in advance about the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
In the coming weeks, lawmakers in the House are expected to sign on to several proposals that would curtail deals with Saudi Arabia. One of the proposals, according to the Washington Post, will be offered by Republican Congressman Jim McGovern, which would mandate updates on the investigation into Khashoggi’s death before any new military sales to the Saudi government can be considered.
This is seen as a bold step because McGovern represents a district which is home to Raytheon, an arms company that sells hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia each year and has been a major donor to McGovern’s recent election campaigns.
“I care very much about jobs,” said McGovern, “but I don’t want to create jobs by selling weapons to governments that murder journalists in cold blood and then lie about it.”
On Tuesday, the President suggested that he might veto any congressional efforts to halt weapons sales. “We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars in orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them,” he told reporters.
A White House statement earlier in the week reaffirmed Trump’s stance on offering fulsome backing to the Saudi Crown Prince. In the statement, the US President cited the threat of Iran and weapons sales as reasons for remaining loyal to the de facto ruler of the Kingdom. After admitting that the killing of Khashoggi was a “terrible” act, Trump claimed that, “representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The comments were condemned widely as they appeared to provide some sort of justification for Saudi Arabia’s killing of the Washington Post journalist.
US Congress has also been reinvigorated by the recent election results, with Democrats now commanding a majority in the House. Aides said that lawmakers are considering using their powers to push for tougher sanctions on Riyadh and to initiate new Khashoggi probes.
One senior Democratic aide cited by the Financial Times said that House Democrats would now look at investigating why the Trump administration had not taken a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, and cited the President’s unexplained reference to $450bn of Saudi investment in the US. Trump mentioned the figure in his statement earlier in the week when he explained his reasons for backing Bin Salman. The $450bn figure is regarded widely as dubious and nothing more than a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.
Seeking explanations for Trump’s fulsome support of the Saudi Prince, the aide is reported to have said, “There has to be a reason beyond a phantom $450bn deal that will never materialise.”
In January, Democrats will gain the subpoena and investigative powers that come with control of the House. Before that, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have used the Global Magnitsky Act of 2012 to order the White House to investigate the Crown Prince’s role in the Khashoggi murder. This has put further pressure on President Trump; the White House will be expected to respond to the committee’s letter within 120 days and may also be forced to apply sanctions.
One analyst commenting on the growing division between Trump and US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle has suggested that the way that the President has dealt with the fallout from the Khashoggi killing may in the long run prove more harmful to Riyadh than if the President had diffused the backlash from the outset by adopting a harsher stance.
“What the Saudis want more than weapons is the feeling of deep US support, and a brutal debate in the American public about whether we should have anything to do with Saudi will hurt them,” explained Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “If this becomes a big debate, where does this leave Saudi in two years’ time? It might turn out that Trump is not doing them any favours by highlighting and politicising Saudi Arabia. Instead of putting this to bed, he might have stirred up a hornet’s nest.”
The increasing pressure on the White House to adopt a hard line against Bin Salman appears to be part of a wider campaign designed to be a signal to Riyadh that a change in personnel right at the top of the Saudi government is required to get relations back to normal. The most vocal representative of this campaign has been Republican politician Lindsey Graham.
“If he [Bin Salman] is going to be the face of Saudi Arabia going forward, I think the Kingdom will have a hard time on the world stage,” Graham suggested. “They are an important ally, but when it comes to the Crown Prince, he is irrational, he is unhinged, and I think he has done a lot of damage to the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and I have no intention of working with him ever again.”
Denouncing the calls for change in the government, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told the BBC on Wednesday, “In Saudi Arabia our leadership is a red line. The custodian of the two holy mosques [King Salman] and the Crown Prince [Mohammad Bin Salman] are a red line. They represent every Saudi citizen and every Saudi citizen represents them. And we will not tolerate any discussion of anything that is disparaging towards our monarch or our Crown Prince.”