Tensions high as Obama preps Saudi Arabia trip

Tensions high as Obama preps Saudi Arabia trip
© Getty Images

President Obama lands in Saudi Arabia this week with a tailwind of renewed scrutiny on America’s alliance with the Gulf Arab nation.

In recent days, questions have resurfaced about the kingdom’s role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the lengths to which Riyadh will go to inoculate itself from allegations of supporting terrorism.


The Obama administration has sought to quell the rising bipartisan criticism amid its insistence that it needs Saudi Arabia’s support fighting terrorism from groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And just this weekend, Riyadh gave Obama a helping hand by agreeing to take nine of the remaining detainees from the facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, shrinking the population there to 80.

“Even the best of friends are going to  disagree on issues,” State Department spokesman John Kirby insisted on Monday amid new questions about the slippery alliance. “And what’s healthy is that you can have a discussion, and you can have a debate, and you can differ over whatever the issue is.

“We’re not bashful about doing that.”

On Monday, the Obama administration was forced into the uncomfortable position of siding with Saudi Arabia against a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Democratic candidates for president over legislation allowing the families of the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue the kingdom.

The White House suggested it would veto the bill, from Sens. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records Democrats demand Barr, Sessions testify on Apple data subpoenas Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives MORE (D-N.Y.) and John CornynJohn CornynBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal McConnell: 'Good chance' for infrastructure deal after talks unravel MORE (R-Texas), because of the precedent it would set.

“It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if other countries were to adopt a similar law,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake.”

The bill, which had largely passed under the radar despite moving out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, would winnow sovereign immunity protections, thus allowing victims of terrorism on U.S. soil to sue countries that had supported the terrorists.

There is no conclusive proof that officials within the Saudi government were involved in the 9/11 terror attack, but 28 top-secret pages of the 9/11 Commission’s report have long been rumored to claim that some officials within the kingdom were complicit. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

“A lot of the money — the seed money, if you will — for what became al Qaeda, came out of Saudi Arabia,” White House adviser Ben Rhodes said in a CNN interview released on Monday.

“There was certainly, at least, kind of an insufficient attention to where all this money was going over many years from the government apparatus.”

The Senate bill has received pushback from Saudi Arabia. Saudi diplomats have warned the Obama administration that the kingdom could sell off hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. assets if the legislation goes through, and the administration has passed the message along to Congress.

Still, supporters are willing to call the kingdom’s bluff.

“The administration has relayed the objections of the Saudis to senators in order to try to stop the bill,” one Senate aide told The Hill in an email. “They’ve made the point that the Saudis say they would sell off U.S. assets and pull back from the fights against ISIS and al Qaeda, but nobody buys it.”

The aide maintained that “neither move is in the self-interest of Saudi Arabia.”

Both Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump asks Biden to give Putin his 'warmest regards' Huma Abedin announces book deal Mystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives MORE (I-Vt.), have said they support the legislation.

“Wherever the trail may lead, it should be followed,” Clinton told a New York talk radio station on Monday, one day before the Empire State’s primary. “We need justice.”

The Saudi pressure campaign was first reported by The New York Times.

The new standoff represents a growing skepticism about the U.S.-Saudi alliance by many in Washington.

In addition to concerns about the kingdom’s complicity in 9/11, critics have also warned that its support of the embattled government in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels has devolved into a protracted proxy war that has hindered the fight against both ISIS and the local affiliate of al Qaeda.

Last week, Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyAntsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch 'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Senate gun background check talks hit wall MORE (D-Conn.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFauci to Chelsea Clinton: The 'phenomenal amount of hostility' I face is 'astounding' GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message Fox host claims Fauci lied to Congress, calls for prosecution MORE (R-Ky.) introduced legislation to limit military aide to Saudi Arabia until the U.S. can certify that it is helping to fight terrorism and trying not to kill civilians.

The tensions threaten to overshadow Obama’s trip to Riyadh Wednesday, where he will need to deftly maneuver his way through multiple diplomatic meetings.

Support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations is a crucial component of the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS, al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

But Obama is also struggling to get back into the good graces of Saudi leaders following several moves in his second term to rebalance the U.S.’s posture to rely less on Saudi Arabia and extend a hand to its archrival, Iran.

In an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, Obama suggested that the kingdom is too focused on its rivalry with Iran at the expense of broader regional stability.

King Salman notably snubbed the president by abruptly pulling out of a similar summit with Obama and fellow Gulf Arab leaders last year at Camp David as part of a bitter rift over the international nuclear deal with Iran.

This time around, the White House is hoping to avoid any similar points of departure.

“The differences are not going to disappear, but our work together is not going to disappear, either,” Rob Malley, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and Gulf region, told reporters last week. 

“In fact, I think this summit will show how much has been accomplished over the last year and how much more can be done in the coming months.”