House Welcomes Trump Pivot on Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON (CN) – Looking past Saudi Arabia’s legacy of human-rights abuses, members of a House Foreign Affairs panel expressed optimism Tuesday about the future of U.S.-Saudi relations in the fight against terrorism.

“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is complicated because we want reforms and improvements to Saudi’s abysmal human-rights record,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said. “Yet we must acknowledge that Saudi Arabia is an important security partner in the fight against ISIS and in combating Iranian influence in the region.”

As chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Ros-Lehtinen offered the comments in opening a hearing to explore the challenges and opportunities of U.S.-Saudi relations under the administration of President Donald Trump.

Some Republicans on the subcommittee said they hope for closer relations between the two countries after what they perceived as a souring of relations under the Obama administration.

“I’m encouraged by President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and I believe it could be a great opportunity to strengthen the U.S.-Saudi relationship, while recognizing the Saudi’s shortcomings in a number of areas,” Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said.

Chabot counted those shortcomings as including Saudi Arabia’s funding of mosques all over the world that sometimes tolerate or even promote radical, fundamentalist ideologies, which he called a “real problem.”

Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticized for supporting extremists, but Gerald Feierstein, director of Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute, called Saudi support for jihadist groups in the region “overblown.”

Jihadists would actually like to destroy the al-Saud ruling family and establish a caliphate there, he said.

Feierstein proffered that the President Trump could help repair damaged relations with Saudi Arabia by opening up arms sales.

The Obama administration had limited such sales to Saudi Arabia, but President Trump – after his first visit there last month – hinted at a $110 billion arms deal that would include precision-guided munitions.

Critics of the arms deal say that Saudi Arabia is intentionally targeting civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in its conflict with Yemen, worsening the humanitarian crisis there.

Senate Democrats have joined with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to try to block the sale of precision-guided munitions to the country.

Feierstein meanwhile said news of the arms deal settled well with the Saudis.

“The promise of the Trump administration to reverse Obama’s restrictions on arms sales, as well as to restore intelligence and logistics support, has unsurprisingly been well-received in Riyadh and interpreted as a signal that the core elements of the bilateral relationship would be revitalized,” Feierstein said.

Saudi Arabia had struggled with the Obama administration’s criticism of its human-rights record and its outspoken support of the need for political liberalization, Feierstein said, arguing that regional leadership there perceived the treatment as “punitive and sanctimonious finger-wagging” that discounted the country’s security challenges.

Those challenges include threats from extremist groups and destabilizing actions by Iran.

While much of the hearing focused on Saudi Arabia’s poor human-rights record and its support for terror groups in the region, there was also an argument that Saudi Arabia is changing.

“Saudi Arabia has been committed to stopping violent extremism and has been one of our strongest partners in this ongoing struggle,” Joseph Westphal, a senior fellow at the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said in written testimony. “For example, working with our Departments of the Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security and our intelligence community they have made significant progress stopping the flow of funds to aid terrorist organizations.”

Karen Elliott House, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said other changes can even be seen in the conservative city of Riyadh.

One hint of progress touted by House is the way Saudi women are wearing the traditional black abaya, a loose long-sleeved overgarment that resembles a robe.

“You now see young women not only abandoning black, but fitting them at the waist, making the figure very revealed, or walking around with them completely open, showing their tight T-shirts and Levis,” House said.

In a society that does not value individual expression the way that Americans do, House said we should not diminish these subtle shifts, which she called “courageous.”

But one expert said Saudi Arabia still needs pressure to improve human-rights conditions in the country.

“President Trump’s message to the Saudis and other Gulf states that we will no longer press them on these issues was heard around the world and means we cannot have a credible global human-rights policy,” said Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.  

Malinowski recalled how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized Iran’s elections while he was in Saudi Arabia, but refused to comment on the kingdom’s total suppression of democratic rights, a decision that Malinowski said badly undermined U.S. efforts to hold Iran accountable for horrific human-rights abuses.

“It was a gift to Iran and to all who want to portray American advocacy for human rights as weapon we use to beat up our enemies, rather than a principled policy we apply to everyone,” Malinowski said.

He said the move to divorce U.S. foreign policy from its moral aims reduces the American image to that of another “cynical great power” pursuing its own interests rather than being a global leader working for the common good.

“It irresponsibly and unnecessarily cedes America’s biggest comparative advantage in the world,” Malinowski added.

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