A letter to President Biden ahead of his planned trip to Saudi Arabia raises concerns about the kingdom’s cooperation with China on ballistic missiles and its human rights violations.
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WASHINGTON — Leading Democratic lawmakers in the House have signed a letter urging President Biden to take a more guarded approach to Saudi Arabia and to warn the kingdom against pursuing more strategic cooperation with China on ballistic missiles.
The letter comes as Mr. Biden is planning to travel to Saudi Arabia this summer, a trip some leading Democrats have criticized. Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who led the drafting of the letter, said on Sunday that Mr. Biden should not go to Saudi Arabia, citing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist.
The letter — from Mr. Schiff, four other committee leaders and another senior lawmaker — does not urge Mr. Biden to call off his trip, but it says that engagement with the kingdom should be aimed at “recalibrating that relationship to serve America’s national interests.” The lawmakers used “recalibrating” in an apparent effort to underscore to Biden administration officials that they need to stick to their repeated promise to “recalibrate” U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia.
In the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times before its public release on Tuesday, the House members raised six points for the administration to focus on with the Saudis: global oil markets, the war in Yemen, the detention of human rights activists, the investigation of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, efforts to acquire civil nuclear technology and military cooperation with China.
China is helping Saudi Arabia build ballistic missiles and acquire more capable ones, U.S. officials say. The letter is the first time U.S. lawmakers have publicly raised the missile issue with the White House and urged action on it.
Saudi Arabia has bought short-range ballistic missiles from China for years. But in the last two years, that relationship has intensified, even as the United States and China have grown more adversarial. The Saudis are now buying more capable missiles that can travel farther, and they are acquiring the technology to create their own components, set up production facilities and conduct test launches, U.S. officials say, with the apparent goal of being able to produce their own missiles.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., said he had seen satellite images of a missile test site in Saudi Arabia that was a smaller version of a Chinese one. The Saudis have the ability to produce rocket motors and assemble a missile, he added.
“Are they any good at it?” he asked. “Maybe they make little ones and import bigger ones.”
In December, CNN reported that U.S. intelligence officials had assessed that China had shared important ballistic missile technology with Saudi Arabia.
“The missile issue is separate from the nuclear concerns in the region,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East expert at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Now there are concerns of Saudi Arabia creating indigenous missile-building capabilities.”
The message of the letter, congressional officials said, is that Saudi Arabia must understand that expanding the partnership with China, a growing rival of the United States, is not without a cost. Critics of Saudi Arabia’s work with China said the kingdom was turning to Beijing to obtain the kind of ballistic missiles that the United States will not sell to other countries. The end result, the congressional officials worry, is a more volatile and dangerous region.
American officials are also worried that Saudi Arabia might try to build nuclear weapons if Iran develops one. Iran has a civilian nuclear program that the United States and other nations are trying to limit so that its leaders cannot turn it into a weapons program. But the Biden administration’s strategy for doing that — by getting Iran to abide by the terms of a nuclear agreement that the Trump administration withdrew from — is foundering.
Saudi Arabia is a close U.S. partner and a major buyer of American military hardware. But as the kingdom and Prince Mohammed came under increasing criticism after Mr. Khashoggi was killed, Saudi Arabia stepped up its work with China, which is a major importer of Saudi oil and has growing military interests across the Indo-Pacific region.
Saudi Arabia has pushed to improve its missile capabilities as Iran, its main rival, has done the same. Iran has short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting any part of the Middle East and southern Europe. Its most sophisticated missile is the Shahab-3, which can travel more than 800 miles.
Saudi Arabia remains highly dependent on American military training and equipment, giving the Biden administration leverage. And in their letter, the Democratic lawmakers pressed Mr. Biden to use that leverage.
“Public reports indicate that Saudi Arabia is pursuing greater strategic cooperation with China, including further ballistic missile acquisitions,” the letter said. “We urge you to make clear that partnership with China in ways that undermine U.S. national security interests will have a lasting negative impact on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during an online event last week that Mr. Biden came into office intending to ensure that the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia “was serving our own interests, as well as our values, as we move forward.”
“But also preserving it,” Mr. Blinken added, “because it also helps us accomplish many important things.”
He did not mention Saudi Arabia’s growing military and security ties to China, the country that he and Mr. Biden have both said is the greatest long-term challenger to the United States.
Separately, an advocacy group of close relatives of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is using the prospect of a trip by Mr. Biden to Saudi Arabia to increase pressure on the U.S. government to grapple with links between Saudi government officials and the hijackers. On Tuesday, the family members sent government leaders two letters on the topic with about 1,800 signatures, according to an organizer of the effort, Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed in the south tower of the World Trade Center.
The first letter, addressed to Congress, asks for an oversight hearing to scrutinize links between Saudi government officials and the Sept. 11 plot. The second letter, addressed to Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken, asks for the State Department to take the extraordinary step of designating Saudi Arabia as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would expose the oil-rich nation to economic sanctions.
“After nearly 21 years, we are as determined as ever to hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for its role in the mass murder of our loved ones,” they wrote in both letters.
Last year, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the Sept. 11 family members pressured Mr. Biden to declassify materials from the government’s scrutiny of Saudi links. Mr. Biden issued an executive order that has resulted in rolling releases of such materials. The letters cited excerpts, including a 130-page overview the F.B.I. wrote in July 2021 that stated that an investigation determined that two hijackers were assisted by a network centered on offices affiliated with the Saudi government, including its Los Angeles consulate.
Charlie Savage contributed reporting.
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