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On April 16, President Trump vetoed S.J. Res. 7, a joint resolution directing the United States to end support for the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The veto was the second of Trump’s presidency and the second time a U.S. president has vetoed legislation related to the U.S.-Saudi security relationship. Saudi Arabia has now been the topic of more presidential vetoes than almost any other country—outranked only by China in modern presidential history.
The U.S.-Saudi security relationship—which includes arms sales, military assistance and training, intelligence sharing, and direct operational support—has been a long-standing source of disagreement between Congress and the White House. Congress has expressed its opposition to this relationship through legislative action, including the disapproval of arms agreements, limitations on security assistance and, more recently, proposals to remove U.S. forces from hostilities. A history of these disagreements illustrates how shifting priorities and circumstances have caused the specifics of congressional opposition to vary, while also demonstrating that certain structural elements of the relationship have consistently driven underlying congressional unease.
1932-1971: The Early Days
U.S. strategic interests in Saudi Arabia are almost as old as the kingdom itself. King Abdulaziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud) founded Saudi Arabia in 1932, and in 1933, Ibn Saud granted an oil exploration concession to Standard Oil of California (SoCal), a precursor to the Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco). Oil was discovered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1938, solidifying U.S. energy interests in the kingdom.
During World War II, President Roosevelt stated that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” In 1943, the kingdom received lend-lease aid from the United States, despite remaining officially neutral until 1945. Saudi Arabia also agreed to the construction of a U.S. airfield in Dhahran as a waypoint for aircraft traveling between Europe and Asia and to protect Aramco’s oilfields.
This relationship continued into the Cold War, and in 1951, the United States and Saudi Arabia signed their first mutual defense assistance agreement. In 1963, the United States sent fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia under Operation Strike Hard to help Saudi Arabia defend itself from Egyptian airstrikes during the North Yemen Civil War—a conflict that pitted Saudi-supported royalists against Egyptian-supported contingents from the Yemen Arab Republic.
1971-1989: Growing Congressional Scrutiny
The 1970s witnessed a deepening of U.S.-Saudi ties on security and economic issues due to a confluence of factors. The United Kingdom ended its protectorate relationship with the Persian Gulf in 1971, creating independent states in Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. This opened the door (and arguably created the strategic need) for a greater U.S. role in the region. By 1971, the Nixon administration had developed the “twin pillar” policy, in which the United States provided political and military support to Iran and Saudi Arabia (although Saudi Arabia was considered “junior” to Iran) in exchange for these countries’ support of U.S. regional interests. Between 1970 and 1972, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased from $15.8 million to $312.4 million. Saudi Arabia funded these purchases with oil revenues, which increased from $1.2 billion to $25.7 billion between 1970 and 1975.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship was not without conflict, with the United States’s support for Israel being a particular sticking point. This conflict reached a crisis point in 1973. Arab members of OPEC (including Saudi Arabia) imposed an oil embargo on countries that supported Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (including the United States). The embargo caused oil prices to quadruple within a three-month period, causing significant economic pain in the United States. This conflict, however, did little to disrupt security ties between the two states. The embargo was lifted in March 1974, and Washington and Riyadh signed an agreement in June 1974 increasing military and economic cooperation. In 1975, the United States and Saudi Arabia concluded military sales agreements worth $2 billion.
The deepening relationship, in particular the increase in arms sales, ushered in a period of greater congressional scrutiny. In the 1970s, Congress passed legislation heightening congressional review over arms sales, culminating in the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA). According to contemporary sources, one motivation for the AECA was congressional concern over U.S. arms sales to the Persian Gulf (including Saudi Arabia, pre-revolution Iran and Kuwait). Those supporting greater congressional scrutiny of arms sales to the Gulf raised concerns about regional proliferation and Israel’s security.
Among its many provisions, the AECA gives the executive branch authority to regulate and approve the export of defense articles and services, including foreign military sales (FMS) and direct commercial sales (DCS). Congress is given the power to review and reject arms sales. Specifically, Sections 36(b) and 36(c) of the AECA (codified at 22 U.S.C. § 2776(b) and 2667(c), respectively) require the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the conclusion of arms agreements (limited to those over a certain size threshold). Congress can block the sale with the passage of a resolution of disapproval, which is granted certain expedited procedures to facilitate passage during the notification window. (Congress can also pass legislation issuing a blanket ban on arms sales, but this legislation will not benefit from expedited procedures and thus may be subject to greater obstruction by opposed members of Congress.)
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Congress frequently used its authority under the AECA to influence arms agreements with Saudi Arabia. For example, in 1976, S. Con. Res. 161 opposed the sale of 2,000 Sidewinder and 1,500 Maverick missiles to Saudi Arabia. Due to congressional opposition, the Ford administration cut the proposal to 850 Sidewinders and 650 Mavericks. Similarly, in 1978, S. Con. Res. 86 expressed congressional opposition to the sale of fighter jets to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, these concerns were alleviated by an increase in the number of F-15s sold to Israel and reassurances that the planes were enabled for defensive operations.
Executive-legislative clashes over Saudi arms sales escalated during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In 1981, the House successfully passed H. Con. Res. 194, which opposed an $8.5 billion arms agreement and prompted the Reagan administration to agree to certain certification and monitoring conditions on the sale. In 1984, President Reagan used his emergency powers to sell 400 Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia in order to bypass congressional review. Then, in 1986, Congress passed S.J. Res. 316 to block a $354 million sale of sophisticated missile systems to Saudi Arabia. This was the first, and only, instance of Congress successfully passing legislation under Section 36(b) of the AECA. Reagan vetoed the resolution, allowing the deal to go through. He removed 800 Stinger missiles from the package in order to avoid a veto override, and the Senate narrowly failed to override the veto by a vote of 66-34.
The 1980s executive-legislative disputes reflected countervailing concerns over the U.S.-Saudi relationship. On the one hand, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan heightened Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical importance to the United States, pushing the United States to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s defensive military capabilities. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia remained staunchly opposed to U.S. policy toward Israel and often spoke out against other U.S. actions in the Middle East, causing many to question the U.S.’s wisdom in supporting the build-up of Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities. (Also of note, the 1980s saw the completion of the Saudi government’s nationalization of Aramco, with the Saudi government acquiring full control in 1980 and moving its registration out of Delaware in 1988. This shift arguably decreased direct U.S. commercial interests in Saudi oilfields while increasing the Saudi government’s influence over global oil prices.)
1989-2001: Relative Stability After the Gulf War
The end of the Cold War further strengthened collaboration between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, largely as a result of the Persian Gulf War. Under Operation Desert Shield in 1990, the United States deployed almost 550,000 troops to defend Saudi Arabia, and its oil fields, from possible invasion after Iraq invaded Kuwait. After Iraq was repelled from Kuwait, the United States established a permanent presence of around 5,000 troops in Saudi Arabia to monitor no-fly zones established over southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch. (U.S. troops left Saudi Arabia in 2003, coinciding with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)
In the 1990s, there were few instances of congressional opposition to the U.S.-Saudi security cooperation or arms sales. Between 1990 and 1993, the United States concluded arms agreements worth $32 billion with Saudi Arabia (this declined to $4.2 billion in 1994-1997). Limited congressional opposition to these agreements focused on Israel and commercial disputes. For example, H.J. Res. 549, introduced in 1992, conditioned a proposed F-15 sale on Saudi Arabia ceasing its boycott of Israel. H.R. 3105 proposed to block all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it negotiated a commercial treaty protecting U.S. businesspeople. (The commercial treaty was in reaction to a series of disputes involving allegations that Saudi Arabian clients refused to pay U.S. contracts and that Saudi Arabia detained or denied exit visas to U.S. businesspeople as a form of intimidation.) Neither of these resolutions reached a floor vote.
2001-2014: 9/11 and the Development of a New Security Relationship
The 9/11 attacks marked a new phase in the U.S.-Saudi security relationship. The fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers and Osama Bin Laden were originally from Saudi Arabia (Bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was stripped in 1994) shifted public opinion decisively against the kingdom. Between January and December 2001, American public opinion of Saudi Arabia in a Zogby poll declined from 56 percent favorable to a mere 24 percent. The attacks also caused many in the foreign policy community to raise concerns over the role of Salafism in Saudi Arabia’s political system, Saudi Arabia’s historical ties to the Taliban, and its permissive attitude toward both the spread of jihadist ideas and financing networks for terrorist groups within the kingdom (including for al-Qaeda). At the same time, the Bush administration believed that it needed Saudi Arabia’s cooperation and partnership in the war on terror. (After al-Qaeda mounted several attacks on American and non-American targets within Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia also indicated a greater willingness to partner with the United States in counterterrorism efforts.) In May 2006, the Bush administration launched the Gulf Security Dialogue between the United States and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Between 2001 and 2007, Saudi Arabia concluded few new arms agreements with the United States, and it is unclear how Congress would have reacted to the announcement of major arms agreements during this period.
Congress expressed limited opposition to U.S.-Saudi policy by blocking foreign military assistance. Unlike arms sales, military assistance represents a transfer of U.S. resources to a third country, presenting Congress with the opportunity to block this assistance through annual appropriations legislation (or individual bills). This legislative tool is somewhat limited in the case of Saudi Arabia, which receives minimal assistance from the United States (reflecting its ability to pay for weapons systems and training). The Bush administration made only nominal annual requests for military assistance appropriations for Saudi Arabia, going toward the International Military Education & Training (IMET) program and toward counterterrorism assistance. Nonetheless, Congress restricted foreign military assistance to Saudi Arabia in 2004, 2005 and 2007, each time allowing for a waiver if Saudi Arabia were certified to be cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration issued these waivers in 2005 and 2007.
In this tug-of-war between Congress and the executive, the Bush administration emphasized the strategic importance of the Saudi relationship, particularly for U.S. counterterrorism operations and military deployments in Iraq. The administration also suggested that a strategy of engagement was better than one of alienation through exposing Saudi military personnel to U.S. “values, ideas, and policies.” Through limiting foreign assistance, Congress publicly signaled its skepticism of the relationship and its strategic dividends. However, the inclusion of waiver provisions also suggests that at least a majority in Congress were sympathetic toward the administration’s arguments.
Large-scale arms agreements with Saudi Arabia resumed in 2008—indeed, between 2010 and 2018, Saudi Arabia was the single largest recipient of U.S. defense exports. This resumption in aid was the result of several factors, including strengthened cooperation on counterterrorism, growing strategic alignment in countering Iranian regional influence and an increase in Saudi demand for arms. Congress responded to these agreements with the introduction of AECA 36(b) resolutions of disapproval in 2008 and 2010, but neither resolution reached a floor vote and it does not appear that they resulted in any significant modifications to the proposals. Congress also continued to use appropriations legislation to restrict military assistance, including in 2009 (allowing a waiver based on national security interests) and 2011 (issuing a general prohibition on foreign military assistance to countries not meeting minimum standards of fiscal transparency, with waivers allowed if assistance is in the “national interest”) . The Obama administration issued waivers overriding these restrictions in 2010 and 2013.
Debates over arms sales during this period raised many long-standing concerns over U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia, namely the undermining of Israel’s qualitative military edge and broader questions over the utility of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. (Indeed, as of 2008, the AECA as codified at 22 U.S.C. § 2776(h) requires that any arms sale to the Middle East must include a determination that it will not adversely impact Israel’s qualitative military edge.) Reflecting post-9/11 concerns, opponents also cited dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia’s cooperation in the war on terror.
2015-Present: The Current Security Relationship and Saudi Arabia’s Campaign in Yemen
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, under the command of Defense Minister (now Crown Prince) Mohammed Bin Salman, launched a military intervention in Yemen’s civil war on behalf of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and against the Iranian-affiliated Houthis. This intervention (and its devastating humanitarian impact) provoked congressional scrutiny of the U.S. security relationship with Saudi Arabia. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 intensified congressional concerns.
In opposing U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Congress utilized many of the legislative tools previously used to influence the U.S.-Saudi security relationship. In 2016, Congress invoked its authority under AECA 36(b) to introduce joint resolutions (S.J. Res. 39 and H.J. Res. 98) blocking the $1.15 billion sale of Abrams tanks, largely over concerns about the use of U.S. military equipment in the Yemen conflict. (Neither resolution advanced out of committee.) Similarly, in 2017, Congress introduced joint resolutions (S.J. Res. 42 and H.J. Res. 102) against the commercial sale of precision guided munitions (PGMs) under AECA 36(c). During floor consideration (which ultimately resulted in the resolution not advancing), senators weighed Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the humanitarian situation in Yemen against the need to counter Iranian influence in Yemen. In part due to congressional pressure, the Obama administration suspended a planned $390 million sale of PGMs and certain intelligence-sharing activities in December 2016. These were subsequently resumed by the Trump administration.
Congress has also sought to limit foreign military assistance. The 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibited the provision of IMET assistance to Saudi Arabia with no provisions for a presidential waiver.
Beginning in 2017, congressional opposition began targeting direct U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition under the War Powers Resolution, an angle not previously adopted in the U.S.-Saudi security context. As discussed previously on Lawfare, the Yemen Resolution vetoed by President Trump on April 16 was the culmination of these efforts and sought to remove U.S. forces from “hostilities” in or affecting Yemen, except those targeting al-Qaeda.
Although this resolution did not pass, several other proposals seek broader limitations on U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia. For example, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2019 (S. 398) calls for the suspension of all arms sales to Saudi Arabia as part of a suite of proposed sanctions and accountability measures. Similarly, H.R. 643 prohibits all security assistance and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It is unclear if any of these bills will progress beyond their current form or if any of their provisions will find their way into appropriations legislation, such as the National Defense Authorization Act.
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As this history demonstrates, the fact that Congress and the president are at odds over U.S. security policy toward Saudi Arabia is not a new development in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In the current dispute, Congress is leveraging several old tools for influencing security policy—including opposition to arms sales under the AECA and restrictions on foreign assistance—and previously unused tools, such as the War Powers Resolution.
Congress’s specific objections to the U.S.-Saudi security relationship reflect contemporary concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Beyond Yemen, however, several structural factors complicate traditional pillars of the U.S.-Saudi security alliance, including concerns that Saudi Arabia’s actions are undermining regional security, growing scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s internal politics (for example, its human rights track record), and the U.S.’s increased capacity to produce domestic oil (although Saudi Arabia remains important to global energy markets). Those in support of continuing the relationship emphasize that, although the Saudi-U.S. partnership is far from perfect, it has strategic benefits, particularly in counterterrorism, opposition to Iran, and maintenance of regional stability against a more chaotic alternative.
Ultimately, congressional supporters and skeptics must cooperate with the executive branch to change U.S. security strategy, and the Trump administration has consistently indicated that it has no intention of turning away from the U.S.-Saudi alliance. As long as this remains administration policy, Congress may use various legislative tools to chip away at U.S. security support for the kingdom—but there is unlikely to be a fundamental realignment in the U.S.-Saudi security relationship.
Several of the historical points made in this post were drawn from Parker T. Hart’s “Saudi Arabia and the United States, Birth of a Security Partnership” (1998) and Gregory Gause III’s “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf” (2009).