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'Bad news for Riyadh' as Menendez set to chair US Senate foreign relations

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez has been outspoken critic of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and kingdom's war in Yemen
Bob Menendez (AFP)
Menendez has called for imposing sanctions on top Saudi officials over murder of Jamal Khashoggi (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

Progressive Democrats hope the unconditional support that Saudi Arabia enjoyed from the White House over the past four years will come to an end when Joe Biden, who has vowed to "reassess" US relations with the kingdom, replaces President Donald Trump next week. 

More bad news appears to be looming for Riyadh from another part of the US government as well. 

With Democrats gaining control of the Senate, Bob Menendez - an opponent of arms sales to Gulf states and outspoken critic of the kingdom - will become the chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

"It's really bad news for Riyadh," said Marcus Montgomery, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC who tracks congressional affairs.

"If you're Saudi Arabia, and you're looking at a Democratic-controlled Senate, Menendez is arguably the last person you want as an enemy right now. And he clearly is. He's very adamant on taking back control of how arms sales are processed, and he has a particular ire against Saudi Arabia."

Menendez, a New Jersey senator, was one of the three co-sponsors of a resolution to block a $23bn arms sale to the United Arab Emirates last month. The bill narrowly failed to advance in the Senate. 

But with his new powers as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is set to have a bigger say in foreign policy matters and arms sales. 

"We are introducing these bipartisan resolutions out of a shared understanding that Congress must strongly assert its statutory authority over our nation's foreign arms sales," Menendes said last month when announcing the legislation to block the UAE deal. 

"As I tried to warn the Trump administration, circumventing deliberative processes for considering a massive infusion of weapons to a country in a volatile region with multiple ongoing conflicts is downright irresponsible."

Critical of arms sales

Democrats secured control of the Senate after winning two run-off races in Georgia last week. The new members are set to be sworn in later this month, promoting Menendez from ranking member to chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The leader of the committee can hold up or advance legislation, call for hearings and shape up the Senate's stances on diplomacy and war.

As the ranking member of the committee, Menendez has led efforts to impose more scrutiny on arms sales to the Gulf.

When the Trump administration issued an emergency declaration to bypass Congress in approving a weapons deal with Riyadh in 2019, it was because Menendez had single-handedly held up the sale. 

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The Democrat had halted the process by refusing to acknowledge the administration's notification of the sale until he received answers about his concerns about use of US-made weaponry in Yemen.

"I am not confident that these weapons sales will be utilized strategically as effective leverage to push back on Iran's actions in Yemen, assist our partners in their own self-defense, or drive the parties toward a political settlement that saves lives and mitigates humanitarian suffering," he wrote in a letter to the secretaries of state and defence the previous year.

"Even worse, I am concerned that our policies are enabling [the] perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

Menendez then led the charge to prevent the sale after the emergency declaration. "It is our bombs that are dropping on those civilians. We cannot morally continue to support such sales," the senator said at the time, referring to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

A resolution to halt the deal passed in the House and the Senate but was eventually vetoed by Trump in July 2019.

Pushing back against Yemen war

Beyond arms sales, Menendez has engaged in legislative efforts to rebuke Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses.

In 2019, Menendez was the lead sponsor of the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which called for imposing sanctions on officials in the kingdom over the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The bill, which did not advance for a floor vote, called for blocking the assets and revoking the visas of any Saudi royal or official "responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing an act or acts contributing to or causing the death of Jamal Khashoggi".

Khashoggi, a journalist who wrote for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was killed by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in 2018. 

Saudi Arabia says the murder was a rogue operation that occurred without the knowledge or approval of the kingdom's leaders.

'[Menendez] is very adamant on taking back control of how arms sales are processed, and he has a particular ire against Saudi Arabia'

- Marcus Montgomery, Arab Center Washington DC

Trump has shielded Saudi rulers by withholding the intelligence community's findings about the assassination, despite congressional requests for a report on who ordered the killing.

Late in 2018, several US media outlets reported that the CIA had concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had directed the murder.

"Despite foreign and international officials investigating this matter who have concluded that senior Saudi officials bear responsibility for Mr Khashoggi's murder, this administration has been conspicuously reticent to hold senior officials and senior members of the royal family accountable," Menendez said in 2019. 

"Now, despite a mountain of credible evidence, this administration seeks to avoid not only the spirit but the very letter of the law. This is wholly unacceptable for a nation built on the rule of law and committed to the protection of human rights."

A year earlier, Menendez backed congressional efforts to end US support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. "Just because you're our ally, you cannot kill with impunity and believe you can get away with it," he said at the time. 

A congressional resolution to halt American assistance to the coalition was approved by Congress, but Trump vetoed it.

Staunch Israel supporter 

While Menendez has been tough on the Saudis, he is one of the staunchest supporters of their de-facto Israeli allies. 

When he was up for re-election in 2018, Open Secrets, a website that tracks money in politics, ranked Menendez as the top recipient of donations from pro-Israel groups.

"One: The security of the United States is strong when Israel is strong," Menendez told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last year. 

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"Two: The Jewish people have a right to live in peace, security, and prosperity in the indisputable homeland of their ancestors. And three: Israel has a right to defend herself, and the United States will always ensure she has the capabilities necessary to protect her people and her borders."

Axios reported earlier this week that Israel plans on lobbying the Biden administration to "avoid confrontations" with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt over human rights concerns.

Would that push dampen Menendez's criticism of Saudi policies?

Montgomery said Israel and its US allies were unlikely to spoil their ties with the senator if he insisted on pursuing policies critical of the kingdom.

"I don't see there being a conflict that ruptures the relationship that the Israelis have crafted with Menendez," he told MEE. "That kind of leads me to think that if Menendez digs in his heels, they might be more likely to relent in order to maintain their good relationship with him."

Iran hawk

Unlike other outspoken Democratic critics of Saudi Arabia, Menendez holds hawkish views against the kingdom's Iranian foes. 

In 2015, Menendez opposed the Iran nuclear deal under the administration of president Barack Obama.

Trump withdrew Washington from the agreement in 2018.

The multilateral agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had seen the Islamic Republic scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.

"This deal grants Iran permanent sanctions relief in exchange for only temporary, temporary limitations on its nuclear programme," the senator said in 2015. "We want a deal, but we want the right deal."

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Menendez has also appeared at events for the regime-change-seeking Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), which had been designated as a terror group by Washington as recently as 2012.

"Thank you for continuing to highlight the plight of Iranians under an oppressive, brutal regime," Menendez said in a written statement that was read out at an MEK rally in Washington in 2019. "I share your vision for a better future for Iran and all Iranians."

Still, the senator has been critical of Trump's maximum-pressure campaign of sanctions against Iran. He opposed nixing the nuclear deal in 2018.

"With this decision President Trump is risking US national security, recklessly upending foundational partnerships with key US allies in Europe and gambling with Israel’s security... Withdrawal from the JCPOA makes it more likely Iran will restart its nuclear weapons program in the future," he said at the time.

Biden has vowed to reinstate the agreement if Iran returns to full compliance with it. The president-elect also appointed diplomats who helped negotiate the deal to top positions in his administration.  

Montgomery said although Menendez appears to have softened his approach to diplomacy with Iran, he could "potentially be a problem" for Biden's efforts to revive the JCPOA.

"If you're the Biden administration, then Menendez is somebody you're going to have to lobby early and lobby often," he said. 

"But I think Menendez is a little more receptive to a deal that doesn't necessarily give anti-Iran hardliners everything they want this time around."