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Democrats urge Biden to ensure ties with Saudi Arabia 'advance US interests'

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tells MEE that the kingdom 'should be at the top' of Washington's list of worst human rights abusers
US officials have raised concerns over Saudi Arabia, and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and China's burgeoning relationship.
US officials have raised concerns over Saudi Arabia and China's burgeoning relationship (AFP/File photo)
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Several top US lawmakers have signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to rework Washington's relationship with Saudi Arabia and told him to warn the kingdom against pursuing more strategic cooperation with China on ballistic missiles.

The letter, spearheaded by Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was signed by five other members of the House, including chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks, and Adam Smith, chair of the Armed Services Committee.

"Until Saudi Arabia shows signs of charting a different course, and in light of deliberations regarding a potential visit to the Kingdom during which you may have an opportunity to meet with King Salman and other regional heads of state, we encourage you to redouble your efforts to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship," said the letter, first reported by The New York Times.

The lawmakers said that the recalibration should ensure that ties with Riyadh "serve America's national interests".

'Saudi Arabia is one of the worst offenders of human rights violations in the world'

- Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

The letter comes as Biden is reportedly planning to travel to Saudi Arabia this summer, and does not urge Biden to call off his trip, but rather raises six points for the administration to focus on with the Saudis: oil markets; the Yemen war; the detention of human rights activists; the investigation of Jamal Khashoggi's killing; and civil nuclear and military cooperation with China.

US-Saudi ties have come under stress over the past year, as Washington and Riyadh have clashed over the kingdom's response to the war in Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia rejected pleas from the Biden administration to pump more oil at a time of rising prices.

However, Saudi Arabia recently agreed to hike oil production over the next two months, a sign of thawing ties with Washington.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia, told MEE that the only way Biden could stay consistent with his commitment to human rights is by placing Saudi Arabia on the top of Washington's list of rights abusers.

"Saudi Arabia is one of the worst offenders of human rights violations in the world. They fuel modern-day slavery, repress women’s rights, torture and kill dissidents, suppress democratic organising and are responsible for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen," Omar told MEE.

"Putting human rights at the center of our foreign policy means being consistent about calling out human rights offenders. And Saudi Arabia should be at the top of that list."

Congress' disapproval of Saudi Arabia

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Biden came into office intending to ensure that the US relationship with Saudi Arabia "was serving our own interests, as well as our values, as we move forward".

"But also preserving it," Blinken said during an online event, "because it also helps us accomplish many important things."

Congress has been vocal in its opposition to the actions of the Saudi kingdom, from the murder of Khashoggi to Riyadh's relationship with China and to the leading role Saudi Arabia plays in the war in Yemen, which has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians.

In recent months, Riyadh's refusal to cede to US demands to boost oil production outside of an agreement brokered with Russia had added to the outrage in Congress.

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In April, dozens of members of Congress sent a letter to Biden urging him to "recalibrate" Washington's relationship with the kingdom.

Congress has also pushed forward a number of bills in the past several years that have called for an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, condemned the killing of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and demanded a probe into whether Saudi Arabia is harassing US-based dissidents.

Schiff said on Sunday that Biden should not go to Saudi Arabia or meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, citing the murder of Khashoggi.

"I wouldn't go. I wouldn't shake his hand. This is someone who butchered an American resident, cut him up into pieces and in the most terrible and premeditated way," Schiff, who chairs the House of Representatives intelligence committee, told CBS's "Face the Nation" programme.

Saudi Arabia and China's burgeoning ties

The letter from Schiff and other leading Democrats also calls on Biden to address the issue of Saudi Arabia's growing ties and collaboration with China.

The kingdom was reportedly in talks with Beijing to price a portion of oil sales in yuan, in a move which would mark a profound shift in the global oil market.

China is also helping Saudi Arabia with its ballistic missile development and has partnered with it on several nuclear projects, including the construction of a facility for extracting uranium and enhancing its ability to produce nuclear fuel.

US officials say that China is helping Saudi Arabia build ballistic missiles and acquire more capable ones. The letter is the first time US lawmakers have publicly raised the missile issue with the White House and urged action on it.

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"Public reports indicate that Saudi Arabia is pursuing greater strategic cooperation with China, including further ballistic missile acquisitions," the letter said.

"We urge you to make clear that partnership with China in ways that undermine US national security interests will have a lasting negative impact on the US-Saudi relationship."

In December, CNN reported that US intelligence officials had assessed that Saudi Arabia was building its own ballistic missiles with help from China.

Saudi Arabia is a close US partner and a major buyer of American military hardware and relies heavily on American technical support for its weapons and defence systems, which lawmakers say continue to give Biden leverage that he should use to Washington's advantage.