Saudi Arabia’s Clout in Washington Isn’t What It Used to Be

  • Lawmakers in both parties call for reassessing relationship
  • War in Yemen, export of Wahhabism and human rights at issue

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the same clout it used to. That’s the message the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee says he has delivered to the Saudi government.

On Wednesday, the Senate blocked a measure by a wide 71-27 margin that would have prohibited a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, in a vote that was nonetheless embarrassing to the kingdom. Next week, Congress is expected to try to override a looming presidential veto of a Sept. 11 lawsuit bill the kingdom strongly opposes.

Bob Corker
Bob Corker
Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

"I have shared with the Saudis directly that public opinion in Congress and in America is at a low and they should be aware of that," said Senator Bob Corker. "I say that just to be honest with them and it’s up to them to overcome that." The Tennessee Republican said he met last week with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who has been lobbying lawmakers in hopes of derailing the Sept. 11 bill.

Long a strategic ally in the Middle East with enormous financial resources, Saudi Arabia now faces rising bipartisan criticism in the halls of the Capitol over the export of Wahhabism, a branch of Sunni Islam, the bloody prosecution of the war in Yemen using American weaponry and other human rights concerns. Another huge change is that Saudi oil exports to the U.S. hit a six-year low in 2015, thanks to a boom in North American supply.

Even President Barack Obama took an unusual public swipe at the Saudis, criticizing them publicly for fueling unrest and proxy wars in the Middle East. 

All of this is a far cry from 2001, when, in the weeks and months after the Sept. 11 attacks, lawmakers and officials in the George W. Bush administration stood together to defend the kingdom.

‘The Right Terms’

"It is true that when we were so dependent on their oil they had more influence on us," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. "We still would like to have them as allies, but on the right terms."

Durbin said he met with the Saudi ambassador recently and expressed his concerns about the export of radical Wahhabism in particular.

"The fact that they are exporting some of the most radical folks when it comes to their religion is troublesome and it has been a consistent pattern," he said, pointing to recent extremist activity and attacks in Belgium. "They sent some of the more radical adherents to this religion and it does trouble me and I brought it up with the ambassador."

Durbin, the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, voted to continue debate on the resolution, S.J.Res. 39, authored by Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, that would have blocked the arms sale.

Veto Override

The White House and Saudis also face an expected override vote once Obama carries out his promise to veto legislation, S. 2040, that would let the kingdom be sued over Sept. 11. The impetus for the bill stems from unproven allegations that elements in the Saudi government aided some of the Saudi citizens who carried out the hijackings. The administration and its allies warn that stripping sovereign immunity over terrorist attacks on U.S. soil could have deep implications for the U.S. around the world.

"Members of Congress in both parties have indicated they are open to the concerns we have expressed," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday evening. "In many cases they share them."

Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, has been meeting with senior lawmakers in both parties to deliver the message that not only will the measure damage U.S.-Saudi relations, but countries in Europe and the Middle East are opposed as well, according to a person familiar with the kingdom’s efforts on the Hill. He’s also making the case that U.S.-Saudi efforts to counter the Islamic State terrorist group and Iranian-backed extremists are making progress.

Key Allies

To be sure, Saudi Arabia still has friends in high places, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who declared Tuesday he backs the arms sale.

"I think it’s important to the United States to maintain as good a relationship with Saudi Arabia as possible," McConnell said.

Nonetheless, he said he intended to keep the Senate in session next week for a vote to override the veto of the Sept. 11 lawsuit bill -- and he expects the veto to be overridden.

Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps Saudi Arabia’s most loyal ally in Congress, said there is also "Mideast fatigue" among his colleagues, attributing some of it to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

"Mr. Trump has done this a bit, it’s popular right now to push against all things Mideast,” the South Carolina Republican said in an interview. "If you wish to destroy the relationship with Saudi Arabia, be careful what you wish for."

Not a ‘Big Fan’

During the campaign, Trump has had harsh words for Saudi Arabia, saying he’s not a "big fan" of that government in a 2015 appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

"So Saudi Arabia is going to need help," he said. "Like it or don’t like it, people have backed Saudi Arabia. What I really mind, though, is we back it at tremendous expense. We get nothing for it and they’re making a billion dollars a day."

Few senators are going that far, but the anger over the kingdom’s approach to extremists, combined with its intervention in Yemen, has shifted the balance.

"I think this is clearly a moment when Congress is reconsidering the foundations of our relationship with Saudi Arabia," said Murphy, who has accused the Saudis of repeatedly targeting civilians using American weapons. "I think the relationship will continue to be an important one but Saudis are getting a pretty clear message there are concerns."

Aligned Interests

By contrast, the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, who has helped lead the fight to allow families to sue Saudi Arabia, says he stills support the arms sale.

"Our interests are aligned frequently with Saudi Arabia, not all the time," Cornyn said, adding that his overall attitude toward the country hasn’t changed.

"Our interest is making sure that the victims of 9/11 get access to the courts to make the case if they can against whoever sponsored the terrorist attack, that’s all the legislation does," he said.

Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said congressional attitudes overall have been increasingly at odds with the kingdom.

"It has a number of different threads: One is increased energy production in the United States which both makes Americans feel freer to criticize Saudi Arabia and makes Saudis feel more vulnerable that the United States can turn its back on Saudi Arabia," Alterman, a former State Department official, said in a telephone interview.

He also cited "lingering bruises" from the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 "when the United States felt the Saudi government has been on the wrong side of history," he added, as well as the kingdom’s complicated relationship with the U.S. on fighting terrorism, which he said is both "indispensable" in the fight while also promoting the problem.

"Many believe that Saudi Arabia can be more helpful with the war on terrorism," said Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. "As a valued ally that we have been close to, they can do more."

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