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Deep Rifts With Saudi Arabia Overshadow Obama’s Trip
President Barack Obama tried his best to paper over differences between his administration and Saudi Arabia as he concluded a two-day summit in Riyadh with the heads of six Persian Gulf countries.
President Barack Obama tried his best to paper over differences between his administration and Saudi Arabia on Thursday as he concluded a two-day summit in Riyadh with the heads of six Persian Gulf countries.
But the growing chasm between Washington and the oil-rich Sunni monarchy — inflamed by a fresh wave of criticism from lawmakers of both parties — overshadowed the summit’s scripted displays of camaraderie and unity.
The White House had advertised the trip as an opportunity to coordinate efforts in the fight against the Islamic State, boost humanitarian aid to Iraq, and reassure allies concerned about America’s improved diplomatic relations with Iran.
But the president spent much of his time trying to repair hurt feelings caused by his recent interview with the Atlantic in which he described many U.S. allies as “free riders” and said Saudi Arabia needed to learn to “share” the neighborhood with its arch-rival Iran.
Even those remarks, however, paled in comparison to the criticism of Saudi Arabia that has been mounting in Congress in recent weeks as lawmakers have introduced multiple bills scrutinizing the monarchy’s human rights record, its military operations in Yemen, and even its alleged involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As the summit concluded, one of the White House’s closest allies in Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, spoke at the Brookings Institution and called for an overhaul of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
“I’m arguing for a rethink,” he said. “People notice our hypocrisy in the Middle East when we talk about our values and it seems to drop low on the list in priorities” in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Murphy, along with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, introduced a bill last week setting new conditions on U.S military aid to Saudi Arabia as the death toll continues to rise in Riyadh’s year-long intervention in Yemen. The legislation requires that the president certify that Saudi Arabia is demonstrating an effort to “minimize harm to civilians” and “facilitate humanitarian assistance before Congress can consider the sale or transfer of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia.”
Separately, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are building momentum behind a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government for any role it played in the terrorist attack. The White House opposes the bill, and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have not declared support for it.
Instead, Obama’s chief adversaries are fellow Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Schumer, whose state is home to the victims’ families looking to sue the Saudi government. Another influential Democrat supporting the bill is Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Cardin told reporters on Thursday that the victims’ families deserve to have their day in court. “My main desire is to make sure there is a path forward for the victims so that they can be compensated,” he said.
The Saudi government has been lobbying aggressively against the bill. Last Friday, the New York Times reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a group of American lawmakers that Riyadh would have no choice but to sell as much as $750 billion in U.S. assets if the bill became law, a rare and unusual threat. Most observers dismissed it as empty rhetoric, noting that such a move would also harm the Saudi economy, which is already suffering from the impact of low oil prices.
Saudi King Salman, in his meetings with Obama, did not raise the issue, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in Riyadh. The administration has signaled it would veto the bill, which Rhodes said seemed to pacify the kingdom’s concerns.
“My sense is that the Saudis are aware of the position we’ve taken on the legislation,” he said. “So it’s not as if they needed to spend a lot of time addressing with us. So it wasn’t a subject at the [bilateral], even as obviously there have been many statements about it over the last several days.”
Congress’s increasingly vocal criticism of Riyadh signals a break from the past, when America’s dependence on Saudi oil took precedence over concerns about human rights and support for extremism.
In his address, Murphy noted that Saudi Arabia’s “support for the Wahhabi movement,” an ultraconservative form of Islam, “forms the foundation, the building blocks, of the very extremist movements we say is a top priority to fight in the region.”
“It’s harder and harder to ignore the holes in the relationship,” he added.
Obama landed in Riyadh on Wednesday and was greeted by the governor of Riyadh and the foreign minister. The king’s absence was viewed by some as a snub, but the White House strongly disputed that notion.
Molly O’Toole contributed to this report
Photo credit: Getty Images