Senator calls for 'comprehensive review' of US-Saudi relationship

Republican Senator Jim Risch introduces legislation that seeks to push back on Saudi Arabia over its rights record.

    Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a family photo session with other leaders and attendees at the G20 leaders' summit in Osaka, Japan [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]
    Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a family photo session with other leaders and attendees at the G20 leaders' summit in Osaka, Japan [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

    Washington, DC - Citing the war in Yemen, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses, a leading Republican senator has introduced legislation calling for a "comprehensive review" of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.

    The bill also seeks to criticise Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and impose travel restrictions on Saudi royals until the kingdom improves its human rights record.

    Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the bill at Senate hearing on President Donald Trump's "emergency" designation allowing $8bn in precision-guided weapons sales and high-technology transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

    The bill is the latest in a series of attempts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the mounting death toll in Yemen, as well as the murder of Khashoggi who was killed last October in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

    Risch has been working for months with his Republican and Democratic colleagues in the Senate and White House officials to put together legislation that Trump may accept. Trump vetoed a bipartisan measure passed by Congress to end the US military's role earlier this year.

    The US president has also threatened to veto a measure passed by the Senate that expresses disapproval of his administration's move to bypass Congress to complete the $8bn in weapons sales. The House is expected to vote on that measure next week.

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    "I am really hoping that all of us can come together and pass a piece of legislation" that provides "a bipartisan method for re-evaluating our relationship", Risch said at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday.

    "It has headed south on us since about 2015 and unfortunately it comes at a time when Iran presents an increasing challenge to us," Risch said.

    'Reckless manner'

    Risch's bill, which does not mention the weapons sales, is cosponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump who has been critical of MBS, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, among others. The Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the bill later this month.

    The bill said that MBS's "actions have had the potential to significantly harm the United States historic relationship with Saudi Arabia".

    Prince Mohammed "has frequently behaved in a reckless manner", the proposed legislation added.

    According to reports, US intelligence agencies have concluded that MBS ordered the 2018 murder of Khashoggi - a conclusion Saudi Arabia denies. Since the murder, there has been increased pressure by members of Congress on Trump to hold MBS accountable.

    Risch's bill would authorise the president to suspend US visas of citizens of Saudi Arabia, including specifically government employees and descendants of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the late founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia. The bill, however, allows for exceptions for diplomatic personnel and heads of state.

    'Disdain for Congress'

    In defending the Trump administration's recent "emergency" designation, R Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, said the US believed Iran was prepared to make an attack on US forces or allies in the region.  

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    Cooper came under sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats during Wednesday's hearing.

    "Since you began your tenure your department has shown only disdain for Congress," Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said.

    "The secretary of state's message is clear: 'Congress can review arms sales, just don't take too long, or ask tough questions. Otherwise, I will ignore the law and cut you out of the process'," Menendez added.

    Menendez has introduced separate legislation that would impose financial sanctions on Saudi individuals involved in Khashoggi's murder and requiring a report from the State Department on Saudi Arabia's abuse of human rights of journalists, bloggers and women's rights advocates.

    Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, described Saudi Arabia as a "problematic partner" which has too often embraced enemies of the US.

    "The process the administration followed on these arms sales was crap," Cruz told Cooper.

    "If this administration does this again and there is not a live emergency, you will not have my vote and I would predict you would not have the votes of many of my Republican colleagues," he said.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency