As Christians, We Call for Change in the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relationship

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It is unfortunate that it took what the CIA has determined to be the state-sponsored assassination and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to turn the public’s attention to the barbaric policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Although this incident is channeling a bipartisan unity in Congress to reexamine the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it is concerning that the president will not acknowledge the CIA’s findings that MBS, the de-facto head of the Saudi government, is responsible for this assassination and that he sees no need for reform to the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship. 

Holding Saudi Arabia accountable not only for Khashoggi’s assassination, if found guilty, but also for fundamental violations against human rights and international law is necessary to both promote American values and uphold U.S. interests in the Middle East. KSA tops the list of worst perpetrators of human rights in the world and we should remember this country’s assault on journalism long predates Khashoggi. Raif Badawi has been imprisoned since 2012 because he founded a website and made statements such as “Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal.” 

As MBS seized power, many naively subscribed to the crown prince’s self-promotion as a “reformer.” However, the mass imprisonment of his political rivals in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and forced resignation and house arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri are warning signs that should have been heeded. And while many championed the crown prince’s initiative to legalize the right to drive for women, few are aware that the very women who led the right-to-drive campaign have been imprisoned

Complete prohibition of non-Islamic places of worship, death as the punishment for apostasy and discrimination against its own Shia Muslim minority position Saudi Arabia as the greatest enemy to religious liberty and pluralism in the Middle East.  The U.S. Department of State has ineffectively addressed these issues, simultaneously labeling the KSA as a “country of particular concern”and exempting it by waiver from sanctions that are supposed to accompany that designation since 2006. 

KSA’s global exportation of Wahhabism has inspired recruits from across the world to join terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda and it permits a flowing pipeline of support for Sunni terrorist groups internationally. We would be remiss not to note that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi nationals. 

While we acknowledge the human rights violations by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the Saudi intervention in Yemen has been an intentionally-engineered attack on civilians. American-made bombs have been dropped on school buses, religious ceremonies and medical facilities.  American mercenaries, some currently enlisted in the U.S. military reserves, are even being contracted by the Saudi-allied government of the United Arab Emirates to carry out political assassinations.

The UN has just warned that 13 million people are at risk of starvation in Yemen and thousands of children have already died. Making matters worse, Saudi Arabia has blocked the import of aid shipments and necessary supplies such as food, fuel and medicine.

As Christians, our faith compels us to urge for both Congress and the White House to rise to the occasion that these circumstances call for.

First, the administration should end its support for the Yemen Campaign and suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Congress should revisit the relationship and establish conditions for which arms sales can be reinstated and define shared security interests with the kingdom.

Second, it is inexcusable not to hold MBS accountable for this crime. The president should heed the advice and counsel of the national intelligence community and re-structure the relationship of himself and his son-in-law with KSA.

The U.S. is also diplomatically weakened to respond to the Khashoggi assassination as the U.S. ambassadorships to both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are vacant. The confirmation vote of nominee John Abizaid for ambassador to Saudi Arabia should be expedited and the administration should also prioritize nominating an ambassador to Turkey.

The Department of State should honor Khashoggi’s legacy by ending national security waivers traditionally employed to shield the kingdom from sanctions merited by its various human rights violations. The president himself has even expressed his support for religious freedom and the welfare of Christians in the Middle East, and it is unacceptable that the kingdom continues to evade sanctions for some of the worst violations against the right to worship and interreligious peace in our world today.

This is a moment demanding moral clarity and we must use all diplomatic and legislative tools at our disposal. 

Philippe Nassif is the Executive Director of In Defense of Christians
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace
K.A. Ellisis the Cannada Fellow for World Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary and a National Board Member of The AND Campaign

Policy WiseEditors