The Senate voted 55-44 Tuesday to table a resolution to stop U.S. military spending that supports Saudi Arabia’s combing campaign in Yemen, making the timing for Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit impeccable.
The resolution — which was sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators — went against the wishes of President Donald Trump, who has expressed nothing but enthusiastic support for Saudi Arabia, remaining silent on the Gulf kingdom’s human rights violations and the war in Yemen. Over 10,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia started to support the Yemeni government in its fight against Houthi rebels in 2015.
U.S. military advisers are engaged in aiding Saudi efforts in Yemen by refueling Saudi coalition bombers, an unauthorized action that can be stopped using the War Powers Resolution. The bill that failed on Tuesday invoked the resolution and called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces in the country not fighting al Qaeda.
Tuesday’s vote coincided with the Saudi Arabian PR machine going into full overdrive, as Bin Salman (aka: MBS) visits the United States hoping to court more support for his kingdom’s efforts in Yemen and trying to counter Iran’s influence in the region.
He gave CBS’s 60 Minutes an interview, which aired on Sunday, doing his best to come off as a progressive leader, and Saudi officials have been doing the rounds with U.S. media to emphasize Saudi Arabia’s disdain for Iran, its chief rival in the region.
The crown prince has a lot of leverage too, throwing some cash around before his trip (a $400 million investment in a Hollywood talent and events planning agency) with the promise of more to come.
In addition to meeting with President Trump on Tuesday, MBS will also meet with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Mike Pompeo, selected by Trump as the next Secretary of State. The rest of his three-week itinerary in the United States is just as busy, and according to Bloomberg, will include meetings with Apple, Google and Lockheed Martin, which makes the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile systems the prince might want to purchase.
Tuesday’s vote could have made things uncomfortable for Trump if it went the other way. Last spring, Trump returned from Saudi Arabia talking about a $110 billion arms deal that then-White House Spokesman Sean Spicer claimed would actually yield $350 billion in gains for the United States “over the next 10 years in defense cooperation from Saudi Arabia that will further enable Muslim troops to take on a greater role in fighting terrorism.” (This would include Raytheon, a U.S. defense contractor, being allowed to sell $7 billion worth of “smart bombs” to Saudi Arabia).
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker noted that while the numbers seemed to add up, that upon digging deeper, they found that “there’s less than meets the eye,” as many of the numbers only reflected “memorandums of intent” and not actual deals.
Still, The Post also reported last week that Trump had hit up the Saudis for $4 billion in order to “rebuild and stabilize the parts of Syria that the U.S. military and its local allies have liberated from the Islamic State” — part of his exit strategy from the warn-torn country.
What will Saudi want in return? If it’s not continued military support for their operations in Yemen, it could be more cooperation in their attempts to counter Iran. Shortly before his meeting with President Trump, the two held a press conference when they were asked about Iran and, specifically, if Trump intended to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Here’s what they said:
Trump: We’ll see what happens…but Iran has not been treating that part of the world or the world itself appropriately. Lotta bad things are happening in Iran. The deal is coming up [for sanctions relief renewal] in one month, and you will see what happens.
MBS: Well, we’ll talk about that today