Democrats pledge sharp turn in US ties with Saudi Arabia

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is set to take a sharp turn if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020.

At the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate, several candidates advocated rethinking the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state.

Such a break with a U.S. partner would come after President Trump has resisted congressional pressure to punish Riyadh over issues that have angered lawmakers, choosing instead to cozy up to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“I do think that the relationship is in store for change. The real question is how fundamental that change will be,” said Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“I think it is important to understand that the mere fact that this debate is occurring about Saudi Arabia during the Democratic primary and that you have candidates who previously would be much more circumspect in what they said about Saudi Arabia criticizing them so directly is a real sign of the underlying problem for the kingdom and for Mohammed bin Salman,” he added.

“The ground has shifted under their feet, and if there is a new administration, if there’s any administration other than the Trump administration, which seems determined to protect Mohammed bin Salman, I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Saudis to manage that relationship.”

Lawmakers in both parties have been infuriated with Saudi Arabia since its 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

They have also grown increasingly disillusioned with Riyadh as the devastation deepens for civilians in the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen.

In response, Congress has passed resolutions to end U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen and block a package of emergency arms sales the Trump administration approved for Saudi Arabia.

But Trump vetoed those resolutions and has generally resisted harsh penalties against Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince Mohammed. Trump has argued a U.S. alliance with the Saudis is necessary to counter Iran and protect a significant source of the global oil supply. He has also argued a break in relations would disadvantage U.S. arms manufacturers without helping the region.

But at the Democratic debate this past Wednesday, several candidates painted a picture of a fundamentally different U.S.-Saudi relationship under their leadership.

In answering a question about China, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also condemned the “human rights violations” of the United States “refuel[ing] Saudi jets to bomb Yemeni children.”

Asked about Saudi Arabia, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said “we need a new foreign policy in this country,” adding that “when the president did not stand up the way he should have to that killing and that dismemberment of a journalist with an American newspaper, that sent a signal to all dictators … across the world that that was OK, and that’s wrong.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was the lead Senate sponsor of the resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen, said that he “may have been the first person up here to make it clear that Saudi Arabia not only murdered Khashoggi, but this is a brutal dictatorship which does everything it can to crush democracy, treats women as third-class citizens.”

“And when we rethink our American foreign policy, what we have got to know is that Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally,” Sanders continued. “We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room under American leadership and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.”

Biden, meanwhile, pledged to end arms sales to the Saudis.

“I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them; we were going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” he said. “There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” 

Biden’s pledge goes further than even the policy of his former boss, President Obama.

Obama alienated Saudi Arabia by brokering the Iran nuclear deal. But he then offered more military aid such as backing the Yemen campaign and arms sales to assuage the Saudis’ concerns.

Toward the end of his tenure, though, as the war in Yemen worsened and the civilian death toll mounted, Obama halted the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia — a decision Trump reversed.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a Sanders supporter who led the effort in the House to end U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen, said he’s hopeful the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia would change should any of the Democrats win in 2020.

“I believe that the Democratic Party understands that Saudi Arabia has been responsible for the greatest humanitarian crisis currently in the world in Yemen,” Khanna said. “Khashoggi was murdered because he had the courage to speak out about Yemen. So there will be a fundamental reevaluation of that alliance in my view no matter who the Democratic president is.”

Miller, of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said there are a number of factors that have led Democrats to this point with the Saudis, from the war in Yemen to Khashoggi’s death to public opinion of the Saudis reaching a “nadir” in the United States.

The underlying reason, though, is Crown Prince Mohammed himself, Miller said.

“It’s going to be very difficult for MBS to rehabilitate his reputation and shake off this record of impetuousness, of poor decisionmaking,” Miller said, using the crown prince’s nickname. “So while there will still be a desire for cooperation with Saudi Arabia on mutual interests, like counterterrorism, like the flow of oil, you’re just not going to have as close of a relationship given that you have such an unpredictable and such an untrustworthy leader ahead Saudi Arabia.”

Asked about the Democratic candidates’ comments on Saudi Arabia during the debate, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the kingdom’s role as an “important and strategic ally … would not and should not change.”

But, Menendez added, “what the relationship is should change, in terms of understanding that we’re not going to sell offensive weapons if at the end of the day they’re going to violate the rules of international engagement and kill innocent civilians and that they have to change their human rights record.”

Miller said that while a Democratic president may not go immediately as far as making Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” as Biden vowed, Crown Prince Mohammed’s inability to take public criticism may push the relationship to that point.

“It’s clear that there are senior Saudi officials who are aware of the problem that exists, and I do think there is some degree of trepidation about what will happen should a Democrat win the presidency in 2020. I don’t see any evidence that Mohammed bin Salman is concerned,” Miller said.

“Even if he does hear that there is a problem with Democrats in particular, I think he has undue confidence in his ability to manage it. I think he believes he is completely capable of managing a Democratic president and preventing any damage to his relationship with the United States,” he added. “I think he’s wrong there.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Bob Menendez Cory Booker Donald Trump Joe Biden Ro Khanna
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