Democratic Lawmakers Urge Biden to Ensure Saudi Ties Serve U.S.

WASHINGTON — Several 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 raise 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 in the future.

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.”

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 buyer 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 said the administration had tried to address the murder of Mr. Khashoggi and was urging the Saudis to help end the war in Yemen and end human rights violations in their own country. But he did not mention Saudi Arabia’s growing military and security ties to China, which he and Mr. Biden have both said is the greatest long-term challenger to the United States.

“The point I’m making in a long way is we want to make sure that through the relationship we are addressing the totality of our interests in that relationship,” Mr. Blinken said of U.S.-Saudi ties. “We’re trying to put all of that together and take a comprehensive approach to Saudi Arabia, as we do with any other country.”

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