Khashoggi, an outspoken, self-exiled critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud, was killed by Saudi government personnel on October 2 during his visit to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi had resided in the United States since2017, but he was not a lawful permanent resident. The Saudi government originally denied that its personnel were involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance or death, but, on October 19, claimed that Saudi government personnel had accidentally killed Khashoggi in the consulate. Saudi officials have detained some individuals they accuse of responsibility for the 0+-incident and dismissed or reassigned some senior advisers and intelligence officials. President Trump and his top aides have consulted with counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Turkey and welcomed both governments’ pledges to conduct thorough investigations.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, founded in 1932, traces its roots to an alliance between the Saud family and descendants of religious cleric Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahab, who espoused conservative Sunni jurisprudence. This pact has endured for centuries, influencing the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Saudi authorities enforce religious restrictions, denying women rights they enjoy in Western democracies, and the government promotes its interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, by funding religious schools around the world. Though it has recently lifted some restrictions, including a ban on women drivers, human rights groups say rights abuses persist.
The United States, first through its oil industry and then through government contacts,established a relationship with Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and his successors that evolved into a close alliance despite a stark clash in values. U.S. businesses have been involved in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry since 1933, when the Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron) won a sixty-year concession to explore eastern Saudi Arabia. It made its first oil discovery there in 1938.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the oil discovery’s strategic nature. His meeting with King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in Egypt in 1945 solidified the relationship. Saudi Arabia was officially neutral during World War II but allowed the Allies to use its airspace.
Today the United States provides limited foreign assistance to Saudi Arabia, but security and defense cooperation is substantial and rooted in billions of dollars in congressionally reviewed sales of U.S. defense articles and services. Bilateral intelligence and counter terrorism partnerships are well developed and mutually valued. U.S.-Saudi relations have remained transnational, and current patterns of cooperation would be challenging and costly for either side to significantly modify or replace.
Possible options for congressional action considered or invoked to date include proposals related to the following:
- Sanctions Pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Some Senators wrote to President Trump to request a determination within 120 days as to whether any foreign person is responsible for the extrajudicial killing or torture of Jamal Khashoggi or any other gross violation of his internationally recognized human rights. The request seeks consideration of information “with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia,” and a determination on the imposition of U.S. travel and economic sanctions provided for in the act (P.L. 114-328, Subtitle F).
- Saudi Diplomatic Operations in the United States. Congress could direct the executive branch to limit or condition movements by Saudi diplomatic personnel in the United States (e.g., Division N, Section 502 of P.L. 115-31). Some Members of Congress have expressed concern about the alleged misuse in Turkey of Saudi consular facilities and diplomatic privileges and seek further information from the Administration on “Saudi nationals credentialed to diplomatic and consular posts in the United States.” Diplomatic conventions provide for reciprocal treatment; hundreds of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel and their families are present in Saudi Arabia.
The 115th Congress also has debated U.S. support to Saudi-led coalition military operations in Yemen and potential U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation, reflecting congressional concerns about regional security, humanitarian conditions, and nuclear nonproliferation. Some in Congress may seek to link concerns about the Khashoggi case to these or other issues, including energy and investment ties. Others may argue against linkage, or seek to preserve the status quo. Related issues include these:
- U.S. Arms Sales and Military Assistance. Congress has considered conditioning or disapproving arms sales and military assistance to Saudi Arabia based on some Members’ concerns about the conduct of Saudi-led coalition military operations in Yemen. Some Members may support similar measures based on concerns related to the Khashoggi case. The Arms Export Control Act defines processes for congressional review of certain proposed arms sales. Congress may condition or disapprove of sales by passing joint resolutions of disapproval or other legislation in both chambers, subject to presidential veto. Congress also may seek to approve only certain categories of sales, limit weapons’ capabilities, or condition deliveries.
- Oil Transactions. Congress could restrict imports of Saudi crude oil, with uncertain and potentially significant price effects on global markets, Saudi oil revenues, and U.S. refinery costs/margins. U.S. imports of Saudi oil are limited, and constraints in the global oil delivery system created by U.S. restrictions would likely resolve themselves over time. Market participants currently expect that Saudi Arabia will increase exports to meet demand from consumers who are expected to curtail imports from Iran because of U.S. sanctions. If Saudi Arabia declines to increase production and/or export volumes, crude oil and gasoline prices will likely rise. Other proposed legislation could make Saudi actions in conjunction with fellow Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members subject to U.S. antitrust penalties (S. 3214 and H.R. 5904).
- U.S. Investments. Congress could condition and/or restrict U.S. investment in or encourage divestment from Saudi Arabia, Saudi government securities, or projects involving Saudi state-owned enterprises, as it has in other cases. Saudi Arabia is borrowing to support its budget deficit and seeks foreign investment in government-backed programs to promote growth in non-oil-related activities. Saudi government holdings of U.S. Treasury securities are substantial, and Saudi state entities are exploring significant private sector investment in the United States.