A House committee on Thursday two bills taking aim at Saudi Arabia in the wake of last month’s intelligence report implicating the country’s crown prince in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi following widespread criticism that the Biden administration didn’t punish the kingdom harshly enough.
Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia – where Khashoggi was living when he was killed – introduced the Saudi Dissidents Protection Act with the support of Republican Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas, raising the prospects for legislation that a Democratic aide described as “a significant and punitive rebuke of Saudi’s behavior.”
“That would the first bipartisan action that Congress has taken on really putting some punitive measures on Saudi Arabia,” the aide said.
“Jamal Khashoggi was my constituent. His brutal murder must not be forgotten, and there has to be justice. This bill will be a vehicle for moving us toward eventual justice,” Connolly said Thursday.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday approved the legislation via voice vote as part of a bipartisan package, paving the way for it to be taken up by the full House.
“This legislation imposes reasonable limits on US weapons transfers to Saudi intelligence agencies shown to be involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and other political repression, until such repression and abuse of dissidents abates,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks of New York said Thursday.
The bill is a reworked, expanded version of the legislation put forward by Connolly in the last Congress that was rejected by Republicans. It would reinstate a 120-day pause on arms sales to Saudi security forces involved in action against dissidents and add bans for intelligence and law enforcement bodies that detain American citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia or prevent them and their families from traveling.
McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he supported the legislation as a result of the changes negotiated ahead of Thursday’s committee meeting, including an amendment making clear that it doesn’t stop Saudi Arabia from obtaining weapons for self-defense.
“That’s what got us to yes on this bill,” McCaul said. “It does not prohibit in any way Saudi’s ability to obtains weapons to defend itself.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved legislation Thursday from Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a fervent critic of the crown prince, commonly referred to as MBS. Malinowski’s bill, which was approved by voice vote in the committee on Thursday following negotiations with McCaul, would also bar MBS and all those listed as being involved in the Khashoggi assassination from coming to the US.
Biden has taken no action against crown prince
A month ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a long-awaited unclassified report from the intelligence community that clearly stated that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved the mission to capture or kill Khashoggi. The same day, the Biden administration introduced new sanctions against a former senior intelligence official and the prince’s protective team and barred 76 Saudis and their families from traveling to the US. But there was no action was taken against the crown prince himself.
The administration has defended itself by saying their goal is to “recalibrate” but not “rupture” the relationship with Saudi Arabia and argues it has placed human rights at the center of its conversation with the kingdom.
The lack of direct punishment for MBS was roundly criticized by lawmakers and human rights groups prompting Democrats on Capitol Hill to quickly start talking about measures they would take themselves.
The Biden administration has been aware of what’s coming in the bill negotiated by Connolly and McCaul, the Democratic aide said, and asked for some exceptions to the arms sales language to allow for sales related to US military and diplomatic facilities and personnel to continue. Those exceptions were agreed to, but the aide declined to say what requests from the Biden side had been rejected.
While the bill is aimed at going farther than Biden has against Saudi Arabia, the aide said it could also be useful for the White House.
“We can create space for the Biden administration,” the aide said. “They can go to the Saudis and say: ‘Look this is what Congress wants to do and they’ve got broad bipartisan support to do it.’ And they can use that in their negotiations with Saudi Arabia to either constrain behavior or go after some of these individuals who they would like removed as irritants from the bilateral relationship.”
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee involved in the negotiations on the bill backed down on demands they had made last year, the Democratic aide said, allowing for an expanded version that Democrats hope will communicate “that Saudi Arabia cannot act with impunity to commit these gross human rights abuses.”
“It’s much more expansive in its scope and the message that it sends to the Saudis that the Khashoggi report is public and there will be immediate consequences.”