GOP lawmaker: ‘I was excited’ to meet Saudi crown prince

President Biden’s decision to sit down with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is fraught with controversy given the Saudi leader’s approval of the gruesome killing of a U.S.-based journalist, repression of political dissidents at home and a human rights record that has faced international criticism. 

But for three House Republican lawmakers who visited the kingdom last month, sitting down with the crown prince meant fostering a key ally, even if it’s one that comes with some discord.

“I wanted to meet with the crown prince because the Saudis are one of our biggest allies in the world,” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) told The Hill. 

“As a security partner, we have strong ties with Saudi Arabia, they’ve got strong ties with us. And so I was excited to meet with the crown prince.” 

Reschenthaler, a former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and two-term congressman, was joined by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee

Despite knowing that U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Crown Prince Mohammad was responsible for the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Stewart said that did not make him apprehensive about meeting the Saudi leader.

“The reality is that we meet with leaders from all over the world who are involved with things that, you know, we may disagree with,” Stewart told The Hill.

“We may disagree with some of the actions of their government, but you still try to make a positive conversation and to further mutual interest, or U.S. interest,” he added. “And so I really wasn’t anxious or apprehensive, but I was looking forward to the conversation and trying to better understand Saudi leadership.”

Reschenthaler said he was not defending the killing of Khashoggi, but called U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia “realpolitik.” 

“I was in the military and an American president can order drone strikes – can do all kinds of damage … world leaders have that kind of power,” said Reschenthaler, who served in the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps. “I’m not going to defend the killing of Khashoggi, but allies and partners should talk about that in private, not grandstand on the international stage.”

The lawmakers spoke to The Hill separately by phone on Tuesday, the day after the White House announced Biden’s plans to travel to the Middle East in July that includes meetings in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. 

The lawmakers said they traveled to the kingdom at the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who is a key spokesperson promoting modernization and liberalization efforts and is herself a symbol of women’s increased representation in society. 

“Saudi Arabia, under the crown prince, is going through, what I had been told, was a pretty dramatic change,” Stewart said, referring to women’s increased role in government and leadership.

“We wanted to go see this firsthand.”

Saudi Arabia is described as having undergone dramatic changes since Crown Prince Mohammed assumed significant authority in 2017, running the kingdom under his 86-year-old father, King Salman.

This has included a push to diversify the Saudi economy from its majority-dependence on oil — with one of the largest reserves on the planet — to making the country itself a business, cultural and tourist destination. This includes rolling back strict religious prohibitions on hallmarks of Western culture like cinema, music and sports and allowing women some autonomy and more participation in society.

But with this, Crown Prince Mohammed has exercised an iron fist against any political dissent or opposition. 

His first power move in 2017 was to shake down and intimidate hundreds of Saudi royals, confiscating billions of dollars in assets, holding them against their will in the gilded Ritz Carlton and reportedly subjecting them to psychological abuse and torture. 

Khashoggi’s high-profile death provided an extraordinary example of the lengths the crown prince was willing to go to silence opposition. The country is defined by the State Department as having “significant human rights issues.” 

This includes credible reports of execution for nonviolent offenses, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrest, cruel and inhuman prison conditions and the targeting of dissidents and their families at home and abroad.

The State Department also cites Saudi Arabia as carrying out “serious abuses in a conflict,” with its airstrikes in Yemen’s civil war killing civilians and damaging civilian infrastructure. In a bipartisan vote in 2018, Congress passed a war powers resolution ending U.S. offensive support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. 

Still, Reschenthaler and Stewart argue that U.S. interests with Saudi Arabia — military cooperation and counterterrorism efforts, pushing back on Iran’s military and nuclear ambitions in the region, cooperation with oil and global energy and seeking to ease the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen — are critical priorities that should not be jeopardized with public bashing of the kingdom’s human rights record. 

“We’ve got to engage in realpolitik and make sure that we’re focused primarily on countering Iran, Russia, the [Chinese Communist Party]. That should be our number one goal,” Reschenthaler said.

The lawmakers’ trip, which lasted a week, was paid for by the Saudi government and aligned with House ethics rules of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, Stewart’s office said. 

McClain said in a statement to The Hill that she was “very pleased” to have met with the crown prince and called Saudi Arabia a “strategic partner.”

While the lawmakers met with a range of senior officials, including the Defense and Energy ministers, they spent an hour and a half with the crown prince, which the lawmakers took as a signal of the importance he placed on the relationship with the U.S.

I thought it was gonna be a quick five minute photo-op and we were just going to talk about pleasantries, really. It turned out to be about a 90-minute conversation,” Reschenthaler said. 

The talks ranged in topics from U.S. and Saudi security partnerships, Yemen, oil production, the modernization of the country, the threat from Iran, and eagerness to open relations with Israel, Reschenthaler said.

To the best of his knowledge, Reschenthaler said there was no discussion about the Palestinians, despite their aspirations for independent statehood being a critical issue for the Saudi king and in the Arab world. 

Stewart said they had “positive” conversations with the crown prince when it came to the matter of Russia. Reschenthaler said the crown prince emphasized Riyadh’s position of neutrality as a “regional power.” 

“​I wish we had more solidarity and standing against Putin in the world, but I certainly understand smaller nations’ positions to not want to get involved,” he said. 

Ahead of the president’s visit next month, Reschenthaler said he wants the U.S. to provide more weaponry to the kingdom, specifically precision guided missiles that he said would be important in reducing civilian casualties in Yemen.

The administration has been careful to avoid directly acknowledging Biden meeting with the crown prince, instead touting the president’s sitting down with King Salman.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby from the White House on Wednesday described it as a meeting of Saudi leadership of which Crown Prince Mohammad is part.

“One would expect he would need to be in the room for those meetings,” Kirby said.

Tags Biden Chris Stewart congressional visit Guy Reschenthaler Jamal Khashoggi Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia–United States relations

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