House Republicans are undermining legislation to pressure Saudi Arabia on human rights just in time for the second anniversary Friday of the Saudi government’s murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which sparked international furor and bipartisan outrage in Washington.
GOP lawmakers have refused to support a proposal pushed by the Democratic caucus that would protect critics of the Saudi Arabian regime, making it less likely the bill will move forward anytime soon in the House. If passed, the proposal would put pressure on the Republican-led Senate and the White House to side with either the repressive Saudi government or those who challenge its abuses. That could be a tough call for President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who have shielded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite U.S. intelligence assessments that he ordered the Khashoggi killing in 2018.
“Silence can be seen as consent,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents the district where Khashoggi lived. “We cannot afford to consent nor can we ever allow this kind of gross human rights violation to be seen as something in which we’re complicit by our silence.”
Connolly is the sponsor of the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act, which the House Foreign Affairs Committee considered Thursday. The bill would stop exports of U.S. arms and technology to internal Saudi security forces unless the kingdom cooperates with an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s killing, releases detained journalists and activists, and stops torturing detainees. It also would require American officials to prepare reports on whether the Saudis have used diplomatic facilities in the U.S. to harass their targets, potentially shuttering such properties, and whether the U.S. intelligence community warned Khashoggi that his life was in danger.
“We know Jamal’s in a better place, we know he’s resting in power and peace, but it’s about those that are still living looking over their shoulder and being hyper-vigilant all the time.”
Soon after Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2018, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a handful of Saudi officials, and several Republican senators helped pass resolutions blaming the atrocity on the crown prince, known as MBS, and ending U.S. support for a widely criticized Saudi-led war in Yemen.
But Trump has since repeatedly blocked bipartisan efforts to withdraw from the Yemen war and used an emergency declaration to continue shipping weapons to the Saudis over congressional resistance, public evidence of his private view of his relationship with MBS: “I saved his ass,” he told reporter Bob Woodward for a recently released book on Trump’s presidency.
The upshot is that the Saudis have not meaningfully lost U.S. support in any way since the Khashoggi murder, despite a years-long campaign for accountability by dozens of lawmakers, activists and national security analysts. Meanwhile, the kingdom has conducted its own trial of the former officials it blames for the killing, recently commuting the sentences of some of the convicts in a judicial process that the United Nations expert investigating the Khashoggi case called “a parody of justice.”
Congressional staffers and outside groups working on Connolly’s bill have been keen to win Republican support. They discussed the legislation extensively with GOP aides prior to its consideration by the full committee and made concessions to address concerns about weakening the Saudis’ ability to defend themselves, like ensuring the bill would not stop arms purchases by the Saudi military, two aides told HuffPost.
“We definitely worked the language down,” said Mohamed Soltan of the nonprofit advocacy group The Freedom Initiative. Other organizations backing the bill include the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Project on Middle East Democracy. Some tweaks were worthwhile to help achieve the broader goal, Soltan said: making it harder for the Saudis to intimidate and harm critics of their government and the crown prince.
“We’re hoping that members of Congress see that this is not just something in the past that we’re refusing to let go of. We know Jamal’s in a better place, we know he’s resting in power and peace, but it’s about those that are still living looking over their shoulder and being hyper-vigilant all the time,” Soltan added.
Crown Prince Mohammed has arrested more than two dozen women’s rights activists and other domestic figures since 2018, and Saudi attempts to hurt skeptics of his rule who live outside the kingdom have been detected by the CIA. In August, a former top Saudi intelligence official, Saad Aljabri, filed a lawsuit in Washington accusing the kingdom of trying to kill him in Canada as part of an international witch hunt.
Connolly cited Aljabri’s plight; Aljabri’s family has praised his measure to members of Congress, many of whom were familiar with Aljabri’s counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. “We hoped to have support from the other side of the aisle… and I still hope we could,” Connolly said.
His final text even won public praise from hawkish Democrats who are particularly wary of the Saudis’ regional rival Iran, including Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).
But come Thursday, the foreign affairs panel’s top Republican, McCaul, first called Khashoggi’s killing “outrageous and gruesome” and then bashed the legislation to try to seek justice for him and prevent any other Saudi dissidents from being treated similarly.
“Our relationship with the Saudis covers many strategic interests as well, including the very real and deadly threat of Iran,” McCaul said, adding that Congress already has procedures for blocking weapon sales. He noted that the Saudis’ top regional allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have helped achieve Trump’s foreign policy goals by recently announcing deals to establish relations with Israel.
After adding that “nothing’s simple in the Middle East,” the congressman offered “thoughts and prayers” to Khashoggi’s loved ones.
The Trump administration has already bypassed congressional procedures on arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, using tactics its own State Department inspector general has criticized, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) responded.
McCaul offered an amendment asking the president to “take appropriate action” to ensure the Saudis did not target dissidents in the U.S., saying a requirement to close diplomatic facilities would limit the flexibility that American officials would have in handling “these troubling and yet delicate situations.”
Engel ruled that the amendment was not relevant.
“The Saudi ambassador has refused to meet with myself and several other members,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said earlier in the session. “So it seems that the Saudi embassy is not even being used for diplomacy if that means difficult conversations.”
The panel ultimately advanced Connolly’s bill to the full House. His supporters remain hopeful for the legislation’s prospects as a powerful bipartisan check on the Saudis.
The relatively weak Republican pushback ― only brief statements from McCaul and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) ― suggested that GOP lawmakers were driven less by doubts about its value than fear of implicitly challenging Trump just a month before an election, said a Democratic aide who spoke on background to discuss strategy.
That drove the decision to avoid a recorded vote on the legislation, which could have made Republicans later say they could not support it as they had previously opposed it.
“We could get something a little bit better in a matter of months,” the aide said, adding that a McConnell-controlled Senate would be unlikely to take up the bill even if it came out of the House soon. “So creating the room that we did today and using that to make music later on I think is ideal.”