US-Saudi relationship enters uncharted territory

The divide between Congress and the White House’s perception of Saudi Arabia has widened into a chasm in recent weeks, raising difficult questions about the future of U.S.-Saudi relations.

Saudi Arabia’s stature has plummeted in the halls of Capitol Hill, where the Senate is on the verge of sending a major rebuke to both the kingdom and President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE.

But the Trump administration continues to value the relationship as vital to its broader Middle East plans, particularly to constraining Iran. Some senators, too, say Saudi Arabia is too important for countering Iran, even if they support punishing it for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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Those competing tensions means a full break in U.S.-Saudi relations is unlikely. But Trump is likely to have more difficulty working with Riyadh in the future, confounding both sides.

“I would say that the likelihood is that the Saudis will be frustrated, we’ll be frustrated, but that there will be continued cooperation and coordination on the issues that are mutually beneficial, and there will be a certain coolness in the relationship,” said Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

The Senate is expected to vote next week on a resolution that would withdraw U.S. troops in or “affecting” the civil war in Yemen unless they are fighting al Qaeda.

The resolution, which targets U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, picked up momentum as senators grew aghast at the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S-based Saudi dissident journalist, and the Trump administration’s response to it.

Senators emerged from a classified CIA briefing this week convinced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing.

Supporters of the resolution are confident they have the 51 votes needed for it to pass, though there are procedural hurdles to overcome first.

The resolution is unlikely to become law. The House, which is getting its own Saudi briefing in the coming week, has not committed to move the bill this year, and Trump has threatened to veto it.

But even getting to this point is “absolutely” remarkable, Feierstein said.

“The Saudis have had public relations problems in Washington for many, many years,” he said. “I think that the Khashoggi murder in a sense crystallized some of these issues for people.”

The first big sign of Saudi Arabia’s weakened standing came in 2016, when Congress passed a law that allowed the families of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom. The measure passed despite intense lobbying against it.

Lawmakers’ views on Saudi Arabia have further dimmed over the last few years as the Yemen civil war drags on. A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015.

Coalition airstrikes have been blamed for thousands of civilian deaths in the war, which has also brought on a famine and cholera epidemic.

As the number of civilians killed grew, so too did the number of lawmakers outraged at Saudi Arabia’s conduct.

But the incident that put many over the edge was the Khashoggi killing.

After the CIA briefing this week, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached Senate votes to end US support for Saudi war, bucking Trump Former FBI official says Mueller won’t be ‘colored by politics’ in Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.) said the relationship is “worth saving,” but “not at all costs” and not while there is a crown prince who is “a wrecking ball.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerThe Hill's Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander won't seek reelection Corker dodges on Trump primary question MORE (R-Tenn.), meanwhile, said the Saudis are realizing "that they’ve lost Congress for probably multiple years.”

But even as the Senate is dialing up its pressure on the Trump administration, U.S. officials continue to highlight the importance they place on U.S.-Saudi relations.

In an eyebrow-raising statement late last month Trump proclaimed that “maybe [Crown Prince Mohammed] did and maybe he didn’t!” know about the plan to kill Khashoggi. The president went on to pledge that the “United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.”

This week, two top generals also described the importance of the defense relationship between the countries.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, current direct of the Joint Staff who has been nominated to lead Central Command, told a Senate panel this week he believes “our ability to participate and drive” peace talks in Yemen “requires that we remain in contact” with Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates.

And Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighted that “historically” there has been a “strong relationship.”

“Saudi Arabia is no different than any other country in the sense that the military-to-military relationship that we have with a given country is completely informed by our policy,” Dunford said at an event at The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a columnist. “And so there has been no change in our policy with regard to Saudi Arabia that has informed our military-to-military relationship to date. ... If the policy changes, our military-to-military relationship changes."

"We have historically had a strong military-to-military relationship with Saudi Arabia," Dunford added. "It has been historically a fact that Saudi Arabia's contribution to security and stability in the Middle East is important and so we have approached our military-to-military relationship with that in mind.”

Some senators, too, have expressed concern that when the dust settles from the current legislative fight, the United States will still need Saudi Arabia to push back against Iran.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government Trump, Dems dig in over shutdown GOP lawmakers distance themselves from ObamaCare ruling MORE (R-Texas) this week warned against “wav[ing] a white flag” at Iran in Yemen.

But he also acknowledged the tensions in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the lack of any easy answers.

“I also think it would be a mistake to fracture that relationship with the Saudis,” he said. “It's not based on friendship, as much as it's based on common interests, combating extremism in the Middle East and countering the Iranian threat."