Saudi-US ties are at their lowest since the 9/11 attacks. The Desert Kingdom is under fire from US lawmakers for the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this month — but never walked out.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is threatening to "sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia." Other lawmakers have called for an investigation to determine whether human-rights sanctions, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Act, should be slapped on certain Saudi actors.
President Trump's in a tough spot. Saudi Arabia is crucial to his economic and foreign-policy platforms. So, he's trying to hold the US-Saudi alliance together while Riyadh takes a lashing from Congress. And it's getting harder now that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin just pulled out of a high-profile investment conference in Saudi Arabia, signaling possible trade turbulence ahead.
The importance of Saudi-US economic ties cannot be ignored. Riyadh is America's main weapons buyer. Between 2013-2017, Saudi Arabia made up 18 percent of total US arms sales — about $9 billion worth — and then spent $5.5 billion last year alone.
There's more at stake now, even if it's less than the $110 billion figure Trump touts. The Saudis inked a memorandum of intent to purchase about $100 billion in US arms over the next decade. So far, $14.5 billion has come through, according to the Pentagon. But these are sales American businesses don't want to lose.
Then there's oil. The US imports 800,000 barrels a day of Saudi crude. Admittedly, this is 600,000 barrels below what we imported a decade ago — thanks to increased domestic production.
But Saudi Arabia still sits on massive oil reserves, which means that in today's global economy, the Saudis are key to keeping the prices steady and affordable worldwide.
Oil therefore makes Saudi Arabia a key to Trump's foreign policy. Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran after exiting the controversial Iran nuclear deal last May.
One round of sanctions has already been imposed, with another coming Nov. 4. The second round will include blocking Iranian oil from being sold worldwide, causing a shortfall in global supply. And Saudi Arabia, a bitter foe of Iran, has agreed to Trump's request to boost production to keep oil prices stable.
With Nov. 4 rapidly approaching, Trump would probably love nothing more than for this news cycle to blow over. But rare bipartisan consensus in Congress suggests this won't happen. Trump must now punish the Saudis meaningfully, but not so meaningfully that it hurts US interests.
The obvious way forward for Trump is to respond to the letter he received from the 22 senators and impose Global Magnitsky human-rights sanctions (GloMag sanctions, in Washington-speak) on a handful of Saudi figures.
But Trump can't simply sanction some symbolic figures. Legislators are looking to target Saudi power brokers connected to Khashoggi's murder. And they want a rapid response, even if the president technically has four months to make a determination.
The good news is these sanctions don't have to cause long-term harm to US-Saudi ties. In fact, the administration slapped GloMag sanctions on two Turkish cabinet members in August for the unlawful detention of US citizen Andrew Brunson. Following Brunson's release this month, the president called for re-establishing closer ties with Ankara — even as Turkey remains a deeply unreliable ally.
But it's for this reason that GloMag sanctions may not placate Congress. Lawmakers are also reportedly threatening to withdraw elements of US support for the Saudi-led war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The war is deeply unpopular on Capitol Hill, mainly because the Saudis have caused an inordinate amount of collateral damage. Legislators are thus keen to distance America from this mess by halting US refueling flights for Saudi jetfighters.
The Saudis will view this as being abandoned by Washington, or even giving a green light to Iran to foment unrest in Yemen. Congress should make clear that this is not the case. Support for other elements of the Saudi-led coalition should continue. But a strong message will have been sent.
Together, these two moves represent the most practical ways to move forward without triggering a full cutoff of political or economic relations. Of course, it won't satisfy those seeking justice for Jamal Khashoggi. But it would demonstrate America's commitment to human rights while preserving an alliance America still needs.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.