U.S. reevaluates relations with Saudi in aftermath of Khashoggi killing

U.S. lawmakers and members of the Trump administration are questioning America's close ties with Saudi.

Flag of Saudi Arabia waving on the Saudi consulate building as the waiting continues on the killing of Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey on October 31, 2018. CREDIT: Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Flag of Saudi Arabia waving on the Saudi consulate building as the waiting continues on the killing of Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey on October 31, 2018. CREDIT: Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

As Turkish authorities continue to release new details on how dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, U.S. lawmakers and members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet are taking another look the administration’s close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have called for a ceasefire in Yemen within the next month, CNN reported on Wednesday, quoting a speech Mattis gave before the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on Tuesday.

“Thirty days from now we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a ceasefire, based on a pullback from the border and then based on ceasing dropping of bombs that will permit the (UN) special envoy, Martin Griffiths … to get them together in Sweden and end this war,” said Mattis.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading coalition airstrikes, bolstering the Yemeni government’s fight against the Houthi rebels. While Houthi missiles have killed civilians, Saudi-led airstrikes, carried out with the support of the United States, have been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in the country, where it has decimated non-militant targets such as clinics, markets, and even a school bus filled with children.


Rights groups have criticized the U.S. for its part in these operations, including weapons sales and logistical support.

Mattis tried to place some daylight between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, downplaying the U.S. hand in Saudi actions.

“We refuel probably less than … I think 20% of their aircraft. They have their own refuelers, by the way,” said Mattis. The U.N. Human Rights Council has launched an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in its role in Yemen, where millions of people are now on the brink of famine.

The State Department has also thrown its support behind a ceasefire.

“The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen,” Pompeo said in a statement released on Tuesday night.

Some lawmakers, including Republicans, have also chimed in on Saudi actions in Yemen, including Indiana Sen. Todd Young (R). He cited “the impulsiveness of many decisions that have been made by the current Saudi leadership,” in speaking about why the U.S. ought to pivot away from the Gulf Arab Kingdom and its use of “food as a weapon of war.”

“And it further offends my sensibilities … that the United States has partnered with these countries,” he told the Stars and Stripes.

Lawmakers are also concerned about the Trump administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia, with five Republican senators, including Young, writing a letter to President Trump asking him to “suspend any related negotiations for a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement for the foreseeable future.”

“The ongoing revelations about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as certain Saudi actions related to Yemen and Lebanon, have raised further serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decision makers in Saudi Arabia,” wrote the senators, led by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The letter was also signed by GOP Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Dean Heller of Nevada.

The kingdom wants to start building nuclear reactors, and contractors from several countries, including the United States, have bid for the lucrative project.

In order for the U.S. company (so far, Westinghouse as been named as a bidder) to participate in the project, Saudi Arabia must first sign a “123 Agreement” with the U.S. State Department, as required by U.S. law. Basically, the civilian nuclear agreement sets non-proliferation standards to prevent a given country from building nuclear weapons.

Under the umbrella of the 123 Agreement, additional safeguards can be added if deemed necessary, though there have been reports that the Trump administration will try to waive these safeguards for Saudi Arabia.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been trying to negotiate this deal with Saudi Arabia, which has thus far refused to sign such an agreement. The potential for conflict of interest is significant here: In exchange for improving the odds of Westinghouse getting the bid, the U.S. could back off of wanting additional safeguards in the deal.

But then Saudi Arabia could ask the U.S. to look the other way on their killing of Khashoggi in exchange for granting the deal to a U.S. bidder.

The senators might try to use a provision in the Atomic Energy Act to block the Saudi deal if President Trump insists on trying to pursue the agreement.

Nonproliferation experts have long expressed alarm over the deal, with concerns peaking when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS in a March interview that his country would acquire nuclear bombs if it felt that Iran had done the same.

This would be in violation the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran and Saudi are among the signatories to this treaty, and under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (which the U.S. has violated, but Iran has not), Iran is also subject to stringent inspections by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency.

Companies from Russia, China, and South Korea are also bidding for the project. Saudi Arabia hopes to have a deal signed by the end of this year.

Another case causing a quiet stir among Saudi watchers is that of two Saudi sisters, Tala Farea, 16, and Rotana Farea, 22, whose bodies were found on Oct. 24 on a bank of the Hudson River.

The girls lived in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that their mother told detectives that she had been contacted by the Saudi embassy and was told to leave the U.S. because her daughters had applied for political asylum.