Skip to content
Democratic Lawmakers Push Tougher Line on Saudi Arabia
Go to my account

Democratic Lawmakers Push Tougher Line on Saudi Arabia

Plus: Xinjiang refugees face China’s influence in other countries

Hello from a relatively quiet Capitol Hill. We’re wishing everyone who observes a blessed Good Friday today, a happy Easter, and a happy Passover. We’ll keep today’s edition short. 

Democrats Urge Distance From Saudi Arabia

A group of 30 House Democrats called on the Biden administration this week to deal more firmly with Saudi Arabia on account of the kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses and its dealings with the Chinese government.

The group’s letter, which included signatures from key committee chairs and other notable members, adds to the recent rift between American lawmakers and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abysmal, and members of Congress from both parties pushed for a tougher approach during the Trump administration amid the horrific war in Yemen and the Saudi government’s gruesome 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Joe Biden called the country a pariah in 2019 during his presidential campaign. But his actions in office have not matched that rhetoric, instead largely continuing the United States’ strategic partnership with Saudi leaders.

“Our continued unqualified support for the Saudi monarchy, which systematically, ruthlessly represses its own citizens, targets critics all over the world, carries out a brutal war in Yemen, and bolsters authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, runs counter to U.S. national interests and damages the credibility of the United States to uphold our values,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Reps. Gerry Connolly and Jim McGovern.

The Democratic lawmakers also asked for an update on the State Department’s review of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comments during his confirmation hearing last year when he told members of Congress the administration would review the “entirety of the relationship.” 

Blinken has since called the Biden administration’s approach to the country a recalibration rather than a rupture. The White House has halted most support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, but the United States is still assisting with intelligence-sharing and other logistical support. Biden also approved a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia, drawing pushback from some Democrats late last year. Others, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, supported the move, arguing the sale was necessary for defense of the civilian Saudi population.

Tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia have escalated in recent weeks amid the Russian war in Ukraine. The Saudi government has not cooperated with America’s appeals for increased oil production to alleviate high prices caused by the conflict.

But Democrats’ letter this week also comes as the Saudi government’s human rights abuses are in the spotlight. On Tuesday, the day before the members made their case for being tougher on Saudi Arabia, the State Department released its annual report on global human rights trends—excoriating the Saudi government for a long list of abuses. From the report:

We stand at an inflection point,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. “The United States can continue our status-quo of seemingly unconditional support for an autocratic partner, or we can stand for human rights and rebalance our relationship to reflect our values and interests. How we move forward will send a strong message to democracies, activists fighting for democracy, and human rights defenders and will play an important role in our fight against authoritarianism around the world.”

This week also brought a reminder of the Saudi government’s support for the Chinese government’s genocide in Xinjiang. Saudi authorities told a Ugyhur woman and her daughter detained in Saudi Arabia that they would soon face deportation—putting them at risk of forced detention and abuse by Chinese police once they reach China.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Vice Chair Nury Turkel, a prominent Uyghur advocate, publicly called on the Saudi government to reverse course:

 

It wasn’t clear this morning if the Saudi government still intends to send them to China or not. 

Saudi leaders openly back China and its genocide in Xinjiang: In 2019, Saudi Arabia explicitly endorsed China’s brutal policies in the region, where the Chinese Communist Party forces Muslims to abandon their faith, sterilizes women en masse, and have interned more than 1 million people in concentration camps that include inhumane conditions, torture, and rape, according to survivors.

A recent report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project highlighted the Saudi government’s cooperation with Chinese authorities. “At least six Arab states—Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have participated in a campaign of transnational repression spearheaded by China that has reached 28 countries worldwide,” the report reads.

Xinjiang Refugees Have Few Options, Face Threats Abroad 

The report is worth reading in full. Uyghurs and others facing persecution in Xinjiang are not safe once they escape China: The threat of extradition and harassment looms in other countries.

Escapes are harrowing, and even successful ones expose the U.S. government’s failure to prioritize helping people fleeing genocide. 

Consider the case of Ovalbek Turdakun, an ethnic Kyrgyz arbitrarily detained and mistreated in Xinjiang for nearly a year. Seeking asylum ahead of an impending deadline to leave Kyrgyzstan, where his family had taken refuge and which borders Xinjiang to the west, Turdakun and his family arrived in the United States last weekend—but only through the help of international connections who appealed to the State Department and literally enlisted American friends to fly with Turdakun and his family to Turkey to dissuade customs officials from stopping their trip. Once they reached Turkey, the family had to wait months for approval before they could come to America. (Read the Wall Street Journal’s piece about their escape here.)

Bob Fu, founder of the Christian nonprofit China Aid, assisted in funding the Turdakun family’s escape, per the Journal. Fu said he had previously tried to work with the State Department to bring in another former detainee from Xinjiang who was living in a Central Asian country, but local officials blocked him from leaving and sent him to a different country, where Chinese authorities captured him. 

Last year, we wrote to you in this newsletter about a bipartisan bill to give Uyghur refugees priority in the United States. The move is important because it would empower Uyghurs abroad to apply directly to the American government for refugee status instead of routing the request through other entities like the United Nations. The U.N. process requires notification of the country a given refugee is living in, raising fears countries near China would deport the would-be refugees.

That bill has support in both chambers of Congress but hasn’t passed in the year since its introduction. (President Joe Biden could unilaterally make this change, but he has not done so yet.) 

The bill was included in the House version of the sweeping China competition package earlier this year but was not in the Senate version. The two chambers have begun resolving differences between their two bills, kicking off a massive conference committee last week. 

Importantly, Rep. Ted Deutch—the original sponsor of the Uyghur refugee measure—was selected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be on the conference committee, giving him a platform to push for its inclusion in the final legislation.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.