Five things to watch for in deteriorating US-Saudi relations

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U.S.-Saudi relations are weakening following the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and critic of the Saudi government.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were already losing patience with Saudi Arabia over its military conduct in the Yemen civil war, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, widespread famine and other devastation.

{mosads}The alleged killing of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives in Istanbul appears to be the last straw for many lawmakers, who have threatened a variety of punitive measures, including ending U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, cutting off support for the Yemen campaign and imposing sanctions.

But President Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s considered the country’s day-to-day leader, have fostered a close relationship since Trump took office. Though the president warned this week that there would be “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is shown to be behind Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Here are five things to watch as U.S.-Saudi relations are tested.

What action will Trump take?

Many on Capitol Hill have been frustrated with Trump’s response to the incident.

The president characterized Khashoggi’s disappearance as “no good” and pledged to get to the bottom of it. But he also said this week that the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains “excellent” and talked down the idea of sanctions or halting arms sales, saying those steps would hurt U.S. business.

The Saudis courted Trump immediately after his election, a decision that appeared to pay off when Trump’s first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, where he participated in lavish ceremonies and announced plans for the U.S. to sell the Saudis $110 billion in arms.

Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and the president’s son-in-law, has also gotten close with Salman, banking on him to be an integral part of his Mideast peace plan.

National security adviser John Bolton said the Saudis are being damaged by leaks of the investigation taking place in Turkey.

“We need to find out what the facts are, and we need to get this resolved quickly, because if it is another operation, people need to understand that,” Bolton said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt that aired Friday. “I think the Saudis themselves are being damaged, because we don’t have the facts out.”

Will the U.S. impose sanctions?

Sanctions appear to be Capitol Hill’s preferred mechanism for reprimanding Saudi Arabia.

Twenty members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Trump this week requesting an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who’s pushing for an end to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, was the only member who didn’t sign the letter.

Under the Magnitsky Act, the president has to conduct an investigation if the Foreign Relation Committee requests it. The White House then has 120 days to report back to the committee on whether it will levy sanctions against the country in question.

Sanctioning an ally — one that has had considerable clout and lobbying power on Capitol Hill — would be an extraordinary move, and some Democrats are skeptical that the administration will take the investigation seriously and then levy sanctions. Under the Magnitsky law, the administration is allowed to waive sanctions for national security purposes.

The State Department on Thursday said lawmakers are “getting ahead of themselves.”

“I understand that Congress may be interested in that, in a global Magnitsky investigation, but we don’t know the facts of this case just yet,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said during a press briefing. “So I think they’re getting ahead of themselves at this point. We will watch the situation very carefully, very closely, wait for the facts to come out, and then we’ll get there.”

Still, lawmakers are hopeful the Magnitsky letter will force Trump to take a tougher line, since he would be hard-pressed to explain his position if he doesn’t act on the statutory request.

Will this affect the military-to-military relationship?

Arms sales and U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen have been integral to the broader Washington-Riyadh relationship. But both were under increasing pressure before the Khashoggi incident.

Lawmakers are frustrated that the Saudi-led coalition continues to bomb civilians in Yemen. Additionally, since U.S.-made bombs have been found at the scene of some of those attacks, lawmakers say the U.S. should stop selling them to Saudi Arabia.

While the Senate rejected an effort in March to end all U.S. military support for the war in Yemen, 44 senators senators voted to cut off support, exceeding expectations at the time.

Similarly, the Senate rejected a resolution to block part of the $110 billion arms deal, but it also had a narrower-than-expected vote margin.

With lawmakers furious at Khashoggi’s disappearance, those who have been pushing for years to cut off support for the Yemen war and to end arms sales say the tide has turned in their direction.

“I don’t think that a military sale could pass the Senate today,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said this week. “I don’t think it could pass the House.”

If the administration notifies Congress of a new arms sale to Saudi Arabia, lawmakers would have 30 days to block it if they decide to take that aggressive step.

Will Saudi Arabia say it was involved with Khashoggi’s disappearance?

U.S. intelligence intercepts indicate Khashoggi’s disappearance involved the highest levels of the Saudi government, including Salman.

The Washington Post reported this week that those intercepted discussions included Saudi officials talking about a plan ordered by Salman to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him there.

The Post also reported that Turkish officials say they have audio and video recordings to support their assertion that Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Many observers say it’s unlikely Saudi Arabia would ever admit to any foul play, even if there’s evidence showing it was involved, and that the Saudis instead might attempt to pin the blame on rogue actors.

In an apparent effort to pre-empt that, Turkish officials leaked to a Turkish newspaper the names and photos of the 15 Saudi men they say were involved in Khashoggi’s apparent murder, including a member of Saudi Arabia’s internal security agency and a lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, at the kingdom’s request, have now formed a “joint action team” to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Will business ties be affected?

A business conference scheduled for later this month in Riyadh is already getting hit by the furor over Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC, the Financial Times and The New York Times have all pulled out as sponsors of the Future Investment Initiative conference.

Media personalities who were scheduled to participate have also withdrawn, including New York Times columnist and CNBC host Andrew Ross Sorkin, Economist Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was scheduled to speak about the future of transportation, also withdrew.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is still scheduled to attend the event, prompting at least one Republican lawmaker to call him out.

“Secretary Mnuchin should cancel his travel to Saudi Arabia later this month until the world receives answers about what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul,” Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.) tweeted Friday.

Further down the line, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is scheduled to hold its “Crown Jewel” event in Riyadh next month, part of a 10-year deal to host events in the kingdom.

WWE told media outlets late Thursday that it is “currently monitoring the situation.”

That deal was under criticism before Khashoggi went missing because, among other things, female wrestlers are not allowed to participate because of Saudi Arabia’s strict religious laws. Brief video clips in which female wrestlers were shown during May’s “Greatest Royal Rumble” prompted an apology from Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority for “scenes of indecent women.”

Some senators said this week it is the prerogative of a private business like WWE to do what it wants. But the situation is somewhat murkier since the CEO, Vince McMahon, is married to Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon, who holds a Cabinet-level position in the Trump administration.

“A private enterprise is a private enterprise, different than a governmental entity,” Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday. “But because she is part of the president’s Cabinet, it falls into a gray area where the administration should really give it some thought to maybe prevail on them not to do it.”

Tags Bob Menendez Chris Murphy Donald Trump Jared Kushner Linda McMahon Rand Paul Steven Mnuchin
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