US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at Irqah Palace in the capital Riyadh on February 20, 2020. Photo: AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

The US-Saudi relationship, which has come under unprecedented bipartisan pressure in the era of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is facing fresh scrutiny this week.

Congressman Eliot Engel on Monday revealed that an inspector general fired by President Trump was investigating the validity of an “emergency” declaration used to expedite US$8 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“I’ve learned there may be another reason for IG Linick’s firing. His office was investigating – at my request – Trump’s phony emergency declaration so he could send Saudi Arabia weapons,” tweeted Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Monday.

Responding to reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sit down with the inspector general for his investigation into the Saudi purchases, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu also tied the firing to the scrutiny over the massive deal.

“Last year my amendment to block arms sales to the Saudis passed the House. We all knew @SecPompeo made up a fake emergency justification. If Pompeo was right, he would have agreed to be interviewed. Instead he got IG fired.”

Secretary Pompeo has denied that the call for the inspector general’s removal was in retaliation for any investigation. Linick, who served in both the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, is now the fourth inspector general to be fired from his or her respective agency by President Trump in the past six weeks.

What emergency?

The renewed glare on the administration’s assertion of an emergency in the Gulf comes as the US draws down its presence in Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon in May said it would remove two Patriot missile defense systems from the kingdom because the threat from Iran had purportedly decreased.

Democrats charge the move to fire an inspector general looking into the emergency declaration is part of a pattern of the Trump administration gutting oversight. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demanded a detailed explanation as to why Trump lost confidence in Linick.

The administration, for its part, has long chafed at what it sees as establishment or “deep state” attempts to thwart its policies.

But in this case, the Trump administration is now coming down on the side of an establishment tradition: a decades-old, lucrative alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, has served as a pillar of US policy in the Middle East since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

The OPEC kingpin maintained stability in the global oil market, while the US, in the path of the Carter Doctrine, committed to protecting its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf.

That relationship appeared to reach new heights when Trump took office in 2017. His son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner quickly identified then-Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman as a key partner for the administration’s goals in the region, and Riyadh was uncharacteristically chosen as Trump’s first state visit abroad.

Trump was especially proud of agreements for Saudi weapons sales signed during his debut trip.

That relationship took a major hit, however, with the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Soon, not only the state-backed killing, but the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the US military backing for that intervention, came under bipartisan attack.

In April 2019, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to use the War Powers Act to end US support for Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen. The Republican-majority Senate voted to do the same – a striking blow to the decades-old alliance.

Faced with the bipartisan push-back, Trump in May declared a national emergency to ram through the $8.1 billion package to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That provision had been used only a handful of times in the past.

That summer saw a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, which the White House blamed on Iran.

Yet while those attacks appeared to drive home the threat to the Gulf monarchies, Congress was not swayed. In July, the House and Senate again voted to block the arms deliveries.

These triggered a swift veto from Trump, which a majority of Senate members voted to override.

They did not reach the two-thirds majority necessary to block the veto, but the vote in itself was a sign of the decreasing goodwill toward the kingdom and incredulity over claims of threats to its security.

Saudis vs shale

This year, Saudi Arabia continued to aggravate Congress.

The kingdom’s oil price war with Russia, which sent prices plummeting below negative in April, enraged Republican lawmakers representing districts that have profited from a shale oil boom.

The oil war threatened the very viability of US shale production and prompted lawmakers to send a letter to the White House demanding support, and even an investigation into the Saudi moves.

Across the aisle, the Democratic race for the White House has been filled with negative rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, with former contender Bernie Sanders calling it a “brutal dictatorship” and not a reliable ally.

Even the establishment candidate and presumed nominee Senator Joe Biden vowed he would make the kingdom a “pariah” state during a November debate.

“I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them,” Biden said, adding that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudis, who have placed most of their eggs in the Trump basket, appear until now to be brushing off the criticism as empty talk.

“I’ve always found that, many times, once a president gets to the White House, when they see a 360 effect, opinions can change,” Ambassador Reema bint-Bandar told the AP in March.

She said she would look forward to working with whoever is in the White House.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.