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WATCH: Sen. Chris Murphy on revisiting U.S.-Saudi relationship

Fred Dews

“My thesis that I’ve been presenting over … the last month or so,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) at a Brookings event this week, “is that one of the underlying foundations of American policy in the Middle East is our resolute partnership and alliance with the Saudis is one of those policies that needs to be revisited as we seek to try to reshape our interests in the region.”

Senator Murphy joined Brookings Senior Fellows Bruce Riedel and Tamara Wittes for a discussion on the U.S.-Saudi partnership, one of America’s longest-standing relationships in the Middle East. Senator Murphy, whose committee memberships include Senate Foreign Relations, expressed his view that despite the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and Saudi Arabia’s critical role in the region, “it is harder and harder to ignore the holes in the relationship.” Watch as he talks about two issues that particularly trouble him: the Saudi family’s support of Wahhabi movement and Saudi Arabia’s objectives in its war in Yemen:

Riedel, who directs the Intelligence Project at Brookings, put the war in Yemen into stark terms, noting that 20 million Yemenis “are facing a humanitarian catastrophe.” He added that by refueling aircraft and providing ordnance, intelligence, and logistics to the Saudis, the U.S. “is a partner in this war.” He added that “if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow.” Watch:

Riedel also spoke to legislation co-sponsored by Senator Murphy and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would impose conditions on Saudi Arabia for the receipt of additional military hardware from the United States. “I think [the] legislation gives the president ammunition moving forward” to do this, Riedel said.

Riedel, who has watched and studied Saudi Arabia closely for decades, also spoke to the Saudis relationship with Wahhabism and with Iran. He noted that the Saudi alliance with the Wahhabi faith dates from 1744; it is “the fundamental bedrock on which this relationship exists.” He also noted that the current period of poor relations with Iran “is in fact a break with the past,” but that King Salman and President Obama should focus on preventing Iranian military assistance from flowing to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Watch:

Riedel added that while we should have a relationship with Saudi Arabia and especially it’s likely next king—Muhammad bin Salman, who Riedel called the “architect” of the war in Yemen—we also:

should also have a relationship in which we are prepared to say to our friends, “don’t drive drunk.” And what Saudi Arabia has been doing for the last year in Yemen is effectively driving drunk. It’s time for the United States to get out of the back seat and tell the Saudis, “let’s find a way to end this war, which is in our mutual interest.”  

Sen. Murphy stressed that “resetting the relationship moving forward so that we ensure that the Saudis are fighting extremism, fighting [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], who we know has designs to attack the United States, is probably more important” than looking at past issues of contention.

Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, moderated the remarks and audience Q&A.

Get full event audio and video on the event’s page.

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