Democrats propose blocks on Biden security pacts with Saudi Arabia, UAE
Reps Ro Khanna (D-Cal.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) took aim yesterday at efforts to expand Washington’s security coordination with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The pair introduced several amendments to next year’s defense spending authorization bill that would block or slow any new defense agreements with the controversial monarchies by forcing a congressional vote — and a potentially heated public debate — before any pact could enter into force.
The proposals appear to be a response to rumors that President Joe Biden will offer security guarantees to Washington’s Middle East partners during his trip to the region next week.
“While Biden seems poised to renege on his promise to get tough with Saudi Arabia, members of Congress don’t appear to be on board with a shift from pressuring Riyadh to sending US servicemen and women to defend the Saudi dictatorship,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
The timing of the proposals is key, according to Eric Eikenberry, the government relations director of Win Without War. “You’re likely to have floor action simultaneous with the President’s visit to these countries,” Eikenberry said. “This very much feels like Khanna and Omar throwing down themselves and saying, ‘We are also trying to influence this debate. Congress will also be taking significant votes alongside your visit.'”
“It’s about signaling to the president that a large swath of his party is very opposed to the kind of military support and engagement they want to have with some of these governments,” he added.
The amendments could also throw a wrench into plans to establish a U.S.-led “air defense alliance” aimed at countering Iran — a pact that may or may not already exist, depending on who you ask. But many experts argue that one thing is clear: Washington’s movement toward further military coordination with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is inflaming tensions with Iran, reducing the odds of reviving the Iran nuclear deal and increasing the risk of further instability in the Middle East.
Each proposal offers a different path to slowing or blocking the creation of such a security agreement. One amendment proposed by Khanna would require that “any written United States commitment to provide military security guarantees” to the two countries be considered a treaty, meaning that there would have to be a supermajority in the Senate to commit Washington to defending Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.
Another proposal, introduced by Omar, would mandate that Congress sign off on “any new security agreement” with Saudi Arabia or the UAE before American funds could be used to support it. This broader framing would seem to cover a wider range of pacts than the other proposals.
The final amendment, also brought forward by Khanna, is more narrow, covering only the congressional effort to increase coordination on air defenses between the United States and its Middle East partners, likely including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, among others. This proposal would require Congress to report on the potential downsides of such coordination, including the potential cost to taxpayers and negative impact on diplomacy with Iran.
The suggested amendments are the latest in a series of attempts to reevaluate America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, most of which have come since Saudi operatives murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 with the signoff of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Notably, members of Congress have focused for years on ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen — an operation that could not continue without American support, according to former CIA officer and National Security Council staffer Bruce Riedel. Expectations were high that Biden would end American involvement in the conflict, but he has kept U.S. support going, allowing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to continue their war effort.
Despite this setback, many activists and lawmakers now seek a wider shake-up in relations. In April, 30 House members called on Biden to undertake a deep review of relations with Riyadh.
“The United States can continue our status-quo of seemingly unconditional support for an autocratic partner, or we can stand for human rights and rebalance our relationship to reflect our values and interests,” the group wrote in an open letter.