Khashoggi killing: Is support for Saudi in US Congress waning?

A growing number of US Congressmen, including Republicans, have called for Saudi accountability in Khashoggi case.

Republican Senator Lyndsey Graham said on Tuesday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a "wrecking ball" [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi has reverberated throughout the United States political establishment, with politicians on both sides of the political divide expressing their dismay over the Saudi journalist’s confirmed death.

Condemnations and legislative moves have come quickly in the hours following the Saudi government’s admission that Khashoggi was killed in “a quarrel and a brawl” inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as he was trying to collect documents for his upcoming marriage.

Many Congressmen, including Republican Senator Lyndsey Graham, a close ally to US President Donald Trump, have expressed their scepticism of the Saudi version of events.

Graham said on Tuesday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a “wrecking ball” and he has “got to go”.

Riyadh has been the key ally of the US for decades and only grew closer under the Trump administration.

Trump has pointed to a “$450bn” arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s position as a bulwark to Iranian expansion in the region as reasons to continue close relations.

It’s unclear from where Trump drew the $450bn figure. The US and Saudi Arabia announced a $350bn arms deal before Trump’s first trip to Saudi Arabia as president. Roughly $110bn of that deal, which is set to extend over 10 years, was effective immediately, according to CNBC. 

Khashoggi’s death has drawn the ire of both the Democrats, as well as Trump’s own party, which threatens to affect US-Saudi relations, particularly the billions of dollars worth of arms deals.

Arms Sales

A bill introduced by Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu on Friday – the same day that Saudi Arabia admitted Khashoggi was killed in its Istanbul consulate – would amend the US Arms Exports Control Act to make it easier for members of the House of Representatives to review and force debate on arms deals with foreign governments.

“In a time where arms sales with countries like Saudi Arabia are worthy of intense Congressional scrutiny, House Members shouldn’t face roadblocks to doing our jobs,” Lieu said in a statement on the bill.

Lieu tweeted early on Saturday morning that “The Saudi Arabia story that Khashoggi would get into a fist fight with up to 18 Saudis, many of whom are trained killers, is ridiculous on its face.”

Jim McGovern, a Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, co-sponsored the bill.

He said it’s US legislator’s “job to determine whether America’s actions reflect the very best of our democratic values”.

The legislation would “align House procedures for reviewing major arms sales with existing Senate procedures under the Arms Export Control Act”, making “it possible for any House member to force debate on the House floor” if the “House Foreign Affairs Committee does not debate a contested arms sale”, a press release said.

McGovern introduced a bill in the House of Representatives on October 16 to “prohibit the provision of United States security assistance to the Government of Saudi Arabia” until State Secretary Mike Pompeo certifies that Saudi government officials did not order Khashoggi’s death.

The bill would make Pompeo submit a report “no later than 30 days” after the enactment of the bill detailing the progress and findings of the US investigation into Khashoggi’s death.

During that 30-day period, the US secretary of defense would not be able to “provide any United States assistance, including security assistance, intelligence, training, equipment, or services relating to maintenance, testing, or technical data”, nor make any arms sales to the government of Saudi Arabia, the bill states.

The act has 15 co-sponsors, including three Republicans.

Republican chorus

Trump has stated he is open to listening to the Congress on the future of US-Saudi relations. This could spell trouble for the Saudis, as a growing Republican chorus is calling for accountability in the Khashoggi case.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed concern with Trump’s handling of the Khashoggi case.

“If there is any sense that is not being taken seriously,” legislators “may well need” to consider their own “surgical piece of legislation” imposing sanctions, Corker was quoted as saying by Politico.

Mike Coffman, a Republican representative from Colorado and member of the House Armed Services Committee, called for the immediate recall of the Acting US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Coffman, a former serviceman with the US Marines, said in a statement “our country must stand up for our values and demand our ‘allies’ respect human rights – I did not fight to have us look the other way.”

Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky who has been critical of Saudi air raids in Yemen, tweeted that he agreed with Coffman: “We should also halt all military sales, aid and cooperation immediately. There must be a severe price for these actions by Saudi Arabia.”

Michigan Republican Justin Amash, a cosponsor of McGovern’s legislation to halt defensive cooperation until the state secretary reports the progress of US investigation into Khashoggi’s death, reiterated Paul’s calls to end arms deals.

Still, there is scepticism that any firm action will take place.

“We may see a delay or postponement of this arms deal of 90 or 180 days, but ultimately it will go through,” Saeed A Khan, a professor at Wayne State University’s Department of Near East and Asian Studies, told Detroit News.

Echoing Trump, Khan said the defence “contracts are simply too lucrative, and the kind of manufacturing and work behind these purchase orders permeates several states”.

But Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, recounted mounting calls for a reevaluation of US-Saudi relations, especially from Capitol Hill.

If “Congress disagrees, it’s likely the president will not have final say”, she concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera