Saudis can blame themselves for Senate vote on Yemen


For the past month, US President Donald Trump and members of his Cabinet have warned members of Congress not to rock the boat too much about Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Last Thursday, the Senate disregarded those warnings and passed two important pieces of legislation. The first was a resolution — with no opposition — that places responsibility for Khashoggi’s death squarely on Crown Prince Mohammed Salman. The second bill, which passed by a vote of 56 to 41, would cut off all US assistance to the Saudi war in Yemen.

The silver lining here for the Saudis is that these rebukes will not end US support for its war in Yemen. There is no appetite in the House to take up the Yemen legislation. And there are not enough votes in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto.

That said, the Saudis are stung. The crown prince is the de facto head of the Saudi state. An indictment of him in the murder of Khashoggi is an indictment of the whole royal family. Congressional sources tell me Saudi diplomats worked frantically last week trying to get lawmakers to oppose that resolution.

Maybe their failure can be turned into a teaching moment. Ever since the world turned its attention to the murder of Khashoggi, senior US officials and some members of Congress have urged Prince Mohammed and his aides to take concrete steps to address their critics on Capitol Hill. An easy step would have been to release political prisoners.

One such political prisoner is Raif Badawi. He was arrested in 2012 — before Prince Mohammed became the crown prince — on charges of insulting Islam. His real crime was writing about his desire for a more liberal Saudi Arabia. Since his arrest, he has been flogged and had his sentence increased.

Prince Mohammed could also stop arresting Saudi women activists, and release those already in custody. Despite lifting the ban on women driving this year, Prince Mohammed has also cracked down on those citizens who had been clamouring for that reform.

None of this, ostensibly, should be too hard for Prince Mohammed. When he visited the US a year ago, he presented himself as a liberal reformer. It’s one of the reasons there were not enough votes this spring in the Senate to pass the legislation cutting off US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

Instead, the Saudis ignored the Trump administration and members of Congress. The activists and Badawi remain in prison.

And leading senators who would normally defend the US-Saudi relationship are now condemning a crown prince they hoped would make his country a more open society. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rarely rocks the boat in foreign policy, was a co-sponsor of the resolution that blamed Prince Mohammed for the Khashoggi murder.

Some of this backlash was both inevitable and warranted. The Saudis had a chance last week to earn a little good will in Washington. They squandered it — a missed opportunity they may regret when the new Congress, and the new Democratic controlled House, convenes next month.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its