A bipartisan pair of senators are laying the groundwork to check U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia over criticisms of its oppression of human rights at home and alleged atrocities stemming from its military operations in Yemen.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced on Wednesday a privileged resolution to require the State Department to submit a report to Congress examining Saudi Arabia's human rights practices, or risk Congress cutting off security assistance to the kingdom.
"This is a resolution that has never been put before the Senate," Murphy told The Hill.
The authorities underlying the resolution rest with the Foreign Assistance Act, which allows Congress to vote to request information on a particular country's human rights practices. The specifics of the bill say that if the administration fails to deliver such a report within 30 days of the resolution passing, U.S. security assistance to Saudi Arabia is cut off.
"We've never used this section of the Foreign Assistance Act but I think it's an opportunity to have a debate on the Senate floor about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship," Murphy said.
The resolution comes at an inflection point of Washington's relations with Riyadh.
China last week brokered a breakthrough deal reestablishing ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran that have raised concerns over waning U.S. influence in the region.
But some experts say the deal may bring new opportunities for regional stability and ease a key point of tension between Washington and Riyadh, in particular if it resolves Yemen's Civil War, in which Saudi Arabia is militarily supporting the Yemeni government. Yemen’s war with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has created what is widely considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The White House has cautiously welcomed the Chinese mediation and then, on Tuesday, welcomed an announcement by Saudi Arabia that it was signing a lucrative contract with U.S.-based Boeing airlines to outfit a new airline fleet.
It’s part of an effort by President Biden and his officials to ease acrimony with the kingdom and its de facto ruler and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the president, in the early days of his presidency, put a premium on calling out the kingdom over human rights concerns.
Biden called the kingdom a "pariah" while a candidate, and then as president decided to publish a U.S. intelligence assessment saying bin Salman was behind the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which was viewed in Riyadh as an effort to insult and humiliate the powerful ruler.
But Biden notably fist-bumped the crown prince during a trip to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, in an effort to put to rest the Khashoggi report, and the administration held back on following through on promised "consequences" for Riyadh’s decision in October to cut oil production that risked increasing gas prices already high because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it is important for the U.S. to "raise concerns about the massive political repression campaign happening in Saudi Arabia, especially in the wake of their decision to side with Russia, with respect to the war in Ukraine. It’s important for us to have a conversation about the nature of our security relationship."
While Saudi Arabia, under bin Salman’s leadership, has made dramatic shifts away from its strict interpretation of Wahabi Islam - allowing more freedom for women in the public space - those liberal reforms have been paired with heavy-handed repression against any political dissent.
Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that tracks democratic freedoms globally, ranked Saudi Arabia as "not free" in its most recent report, documenting "unusually large, mass executions" for terrorism charges, draconian prison sentences for criticizing the government via social media, and saying that political dissent is effectively criminalized.
Still, the U.S. and Saudi relationship is considered an important strategic and security partnership. While Biden and Congress agreed to end U.S. assistance to offensive Saudi operations in Yemen, the U.S. is still an important weapons and defense supplier.
And Saudi Arabia is looking to Washington to commit more arms and security guarantees to the kingdom in exchange for opening relations with Israel.
Murphy said he had read a Wall Street Journal report that outlined the Saudi conditions for opening relations with Israel, saying he hadn’t heard it publicly from Saudi officials or received confirmation from the Biden administration over such conditions.
"We should encourage countries to recognize Israel but we shouldn’t trade away our own security in order to secure that right now. It’s not in U.S. national security interest to give a security guarantee to Saudi Arabia. That would be very bad policy," Murphy said.
"If the reporting is correct, then Saudi Arabia’s current price to recognize Israel is unrealistically high."
Murphy said that he is in talks with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), over the process for bringing the resolution to a vote in the Senate, with the privileged nature of the resolution compelling urgency.
With introduction of the resolution, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is given 10 days to put the request for information before the committee for consideration.
If the committee fails to do so, Murphy and Lee can force a vote on the Senate floor to discharge the resolution from committee.
"We’re going to talk with Sen. Menendez and the Foreign Relations committee about whether they would be interested in moving it through the committee or whether it would go straight to the floor, but we haven’t finished our consultations on it yet," Murphy said.
The Senate is in session for the rest of March before going on a two-week break in the beginning of April.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had not seen the resolution, but met with bin Salman in Saudi Arabia earlier this month.
"I was in Saudi two weeks ago, I met with him [Mohammed bin Salman], had good discussions about our relations," Risch told The Hill. "We discussed our relationship. We want a relationship with them, they want a relationship with us, it’s a long, long-standing relationship and we’re going to work towards that goal."
When asked if he shook hands with the crown prince, Risch said "Yes."
"I know him, I’ve met him previously. … He’s the head of a country that we have a long-standing relationship with and we need to deal with him."