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U.S.-Saudi Relations Appear To Enter A New Phase

Sep 29, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 7:18 am
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When Congress voted yesterday to override the president's veto on a bill allowing families of victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia, it not only defied the White House, it also pitted lawmakers from both parties against Saudi Arabia. To some observers, it might seem like there has been a breakup in the longtime relationship Washington has had with the Saudis.

But as NPR's David Welna reports, another Senate vote last week suggests otherwise.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The Senate's veto override vote was not its first slap at the Saudis. Earlier this year, both the House and Senate unanimously approved the bill that President Obama rejected. So when the Senate moved last week to kill a measure blocking more than a billion dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul figuratively blew the whistle.

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RAND PAUL: This body voted unanimously to let the 9/11 victims sue. And now this body wants to give them weapons? Does no one sense the irony?

AARON DAVID MILLER: Welcome to the world of inconsistency.

WELNA: That's Aaron David Miller, now a Woodrow Wilson Center scholar. He advised both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on the Middle East. Lawmakers, Miller says, no longer feel obliged to vote the way oil-rich Saudi Arabia wants them to.

MILLER: The basic oil for security trade off that powered this relationship for 40, 50 years is breaking down. The Saudis, I think, no longer see us as consistently reliable security partners. And frankly, we are less dependent on Saudi oil.

WELNA: The Saudis are also accused of religious intolerance, human rights abuses and executing political opponents. But Bob Corker, the Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued on the Senate floor that Congress would be foolish to block the weapons.

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BOB CORKER: Saudi Arabia is not a perfect ally, but they have chosen to pursue and purchase U.S. equipment versus Russian equipment or Chinese equipment or some other equipment. This is a sale that benefits us.

WELNA: Saudi Arabia, in fact, is now the biggest buyer of American-made weapons. William Hartung is a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. He says arms sales worth one $115 billion have been approved for the Saudis since President Obama took office.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: The Obama administration has offered more arms to Saudi Arabia than any administration in history by a large margin.

WELNA: And much of that weaponry has been used to wage war in neighboring Yemen. Thousands of civilians there have been killed in airstrikes, which Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy points out are facilitated by the U.S.

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CHRIS MURPHY: We are providing the ammunition. We are providing the targeting assistance. The planes couldn't fly without U.S. refueling capacity. American pilots may not be actually pulling the trigger to drop the bombs, but we're doing pretty much everything else that is necessary for this war to continue.

WELNA: The vote scuttling the measure to block the arms sales was lopsided, 71-27. Still, defense analyst Hartung says those 27 votes against this longtime U.S. ally are many more than there might have been a year ago.

HARTUNG: I think last week's vote, and a number of other activities in the Congress, indicate that the Saudis are not going to get a free ride in the future on U.S. arms deals.

WELNA: But for now, a Congress that seems determined to allow U.S. lawsuits to go forward against Saudi officials remains willing, for the most part, to bless their arms deals.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.