By Dianne Feinstein
Originally published in The Mercury News.
The United States for decades has been a close ally with Saudi Arabia, joining together to beat back Iraqi aggression in Kuwait and holding in check Iranian meddling in the Middle East. We have frequently overlooked many of the kingdom’s controversial actions and policies to maintain our relationship. Today, I believe it’s time to reassess that position.
The recent news that prominent Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey and was likely murdered has shocked the world. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and contributor to the Washington Post, had been critical of Saudi Arabia and its young crown prince.
Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia, despite initially stating it was not involved, may now claim that Khashoggi’s death was the result of an interrogation gone wrong. That explanation is hardly believable. Instead, his murder fits an ongoing pattern of Saudi human rights abuses since Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman came to power.
I was concerned when bin Salman pushed his rival Mohammed bin Nayef, a key partner in the United States’ counterterrorism efforts, out to become crown prince. However, his early economic reforms and efforts to loosen restrictions on Saudi women sparked hope that he could usher in a new era of openness.
Unfortunately, that hope was quickly dashed. Under the crown prince’s rule, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly attacked dissidents at home and sown discord abroad. Nowhere is this more notable than in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign three years ago under the pretense that it would bring the Houthis quickly to heel.
Since then, the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign has killed thousands, deliberately targeted medical facilities and destroyed much of Yemen’s civilian infrastructure. Yemen now faces a humanitarian catastrophe with a major cholera outbreak and millions of people on the brink of starvation.
Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen are not isolated.
Last year, the crown prince attempted to force the resignation of Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister in an apparent effort to check Hezbollah and Iran. It appears bin Salman believed bringing down Lebanon’s government would benefit Saudi Arabia, despite the violence and instability that could have ensued in one of the world’s most sensitive flashpoints.
Our allies have also taken notice of Saudi Arabia’s actions.
Earlier this year, the crown prince overreacted to Canada’s mild criticism of his decision to jail Saudi women who stood up for their right to drive by recalling the Saudi ambassador and threatening to cut economic ties. Prime Minister Trudeau rightly refused to back down and stood by his nation’s condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women’s rights activists who to this day remain jailed.
In contrast, President Trump has remained silent in the face of Saudi abuses again and again. Candidly, I believe the president’s praise for dictators like Kim Jong Un, Rodrigo Duterte, and above all, Vladimir Putin, has provided cover for the crown prince’s actions.
The fact of the matter is that under President Trump, the United States is no longer a champion of human rights. We no longer defend the freedom of the press, the freedom of expression or the freedom of religion abroad, all of which are now under attack in Saudi Arabia. The president even openly undermines the Geneva Conventions by promoting torture.
Instead of accepting King Salman and the crown prince’s denials without any evidence or outlandish theories that he was killed by rogue agents, President Trump should immediately push for an international investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and demand justice for anyone found complicit.
If the White House continues to refuse to act, Congress must. The first step would be to reject a pending arms sale to the kingdom and suspend assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. And we must seriously consider sanctions against anyone involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The United States can no longer remain silent in the face of such brazen human rights violations. Saudi Arabia was once one of our closest allies in the Middle East. I’m no longer sure that should be the case.
Dianne Feinstein represents California in the U.S. Senate.