Saudi Arabia arrested two more American citizens Friday in a direct snub to Congress, a move sure to create even more domestic political heat for President Donald Trump.
The detentions of activists follows US lawmakers’ moves to deny support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and Trump’s promise to veto that bill as he continues his staunch defense of the kingdom, a stance that has created a rare schism between the President and Republicans who are usually loath to criticism him.
Given the timing and the stakes for the President, the arrests are “absolutely baffling – and enraging,” said John Hannah, a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The detentions, part of a sweep that targeted seven Saudi writers and bloggers interested in social reform and women’s rights, are part of a broader crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It follows the detention and reported torture of another US citizen, Dr. Walid Fitaihi, and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident.
“MBS must know that the Trump administration has been expending huge amounts of political capital to shield the relationship from a Congress that is on the warpath over the murder of Khashoggi and the Yemen war,” Hannah said, using the prince’s nickname.
“At this very moment, there’s a law sitting on the President’s desk demanding that the US abandon the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Hannah said. “Yet rather than making the President’s job easier, MBS has just made it much more difficult.”
The Saudi move against US citizens could be seen as the latest example of a nation thumbing its nose at Washington by targeting American citizens overseas. But it also reflects the peculiar dynamic that has developed between Washington and Riyadh, one that has become a point of division within the Republican Party as lawmakers push back on Saudi behavior that the President has refused to condemn.
The lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, spoke out about the Saudi detentions on Friday. “I am deeply disturbed that Saudi Arabia has reportedly detained two more American citizens as well as other peaceful activists. This is a grave and provocative act,” McCaul said. “The Saudi government’s detention of American citizens is completely unacceptable and I call for their immediate release.”
A State Department official confirmed Friday that Saudi Arabia has arrested two US citizens. “We can confirm that two US citizens were arrested in Saudi Arabia,” the official said. “We have already engaged the Saudi government in this regard. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
Saudi Arabia detained a third American in November 2017 as part of a sweeping crackdown. Fitaihi has reportedly been beaten and tortured, sources have told CNN.
The State Department official said, “We are providing US citizen Walid Fitaihi consular services, and we have raised his case with the Government of Saudi Arabia. We are in close communication with Mr. Fitaihi’s family, and will continue to offer them all possible assistance. We have raised and continue to raise his case on a consistent basis with the Saudi government.”
“As far as we know, the Trump administration has not imposed any cost on Saudi government or the Saudi royal family, specifically Mohammed bin Salman and the King for doing what they’re doing,” said David Ottaway, a Saudi expert at the Wilson Center.
The administration hasn’t made an issue of the arrests of US citizens either, “at least not publicly,” Ottaway said. “It would be much more significant and powerful if they did something publicly, but they don’t seem to want to do anything to imperil the Trump-Mohammed bin Salman relationship.”
Trump and his senior administration officials have argued that the Saudi relationship is too crucial to disrupt. They cite Saudi financial support for an eventual agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the campaign to counter Iran and the Kingdom’s purchases of weapons systems.
Trump’s critics have also raised questions about whether his and his family’s business interests with Saudi Arabia are influencing policy decisions.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country holding Americans. Russia is holding American security executive Paul Whelan on charges of espionage, while China is reportedly detaining US citizens in its vast prison camps meant to “re-educate” Uighur Muslims and other minorities. Iran holds at least five Americans.
In contrast to the Trump administration’s public restraint about Americans held by the Saudis, this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Turkey’s “swift resolution of cases involving unjustly detained US citizens,” and local staff from the US mission in Turkey.
The Trump administration has made energetic efforts to bring Americans home, returning more than a dozen in the last two years from North Korea, Venezuela, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey. Experts say that the best estimate is that 3,000 Americans are held around the world and 100 of them are in hostage situations.
But Saudi Arabia is a particular case.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, said it’s “not all that surprising” that the Saudis would feel emboldened to target Americans. “MBS believes Trump has his back. There’s not a shred of empirical evidence to suggest that he doesn’t,” Miller said.
The US has imposed sanctions on individuals involved in Khashoggi’s premeditated murder, which US intelligence has concluded with high confidence was ordered by the crown prince. Beyond that, it has taken little action, though the State Department concluded in a March 2019 report that the killing was a human rights abuse. And Trump has raised doubts about US intelligence conclusions, saying of MBS’ involvement “maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t.”
’A crisis stage’
The arrests Friday marked the first sweep against dissidents since Khashoggi’s death in October. Salah al-Haidar, a dual Saudi-US citizen who is the son of prominent women’s rights defender Aziza al-Yousef, was arrested along with US citizen, writer and physician Bader al-Ibrahim, sources told CNN.
The Saudi government did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment about the case.
Miller said the timing, coming as Congress and the President are facing off over Yemen, “has more to do with [the Saudis] complete and utter tone deafness, their conviction that Trump appears willing to have their back regardless. After all, they’ve already detained one American citizen who they’ve purportedly tortured, the doctor, so they detain another one or two? They’ve already committed the ultimate transgression of the murder of a resident of the United States.”
Hannah, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argues that “the US-Saudi relationship is approaching a crisis stage.”
“It’s about time that the President do something that he’s never done before: pick up the phone and give King Salman and MBS a true wake up call to warn them of how dire the situation is, and to let them know that they’re undercutting what remains of his ability to protect the strategic partnership,” Hannah said.
Miller argues that the Kingdom will simply disregard lawmakers. “What’s the point of Congress when you have a personal relationship with the President anyway,” he said.
CNN’s Stephen Collinson, Jamie Crawford and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report