House votes to ban aid to Saudi Arabia
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Friday to prohibit any aid to Saudi Arabia as lawmakers accused the close ally of religious intolerance and bankrolling terrorist organizations.
The prohibition, reflecting persistent tensions with the kingdom after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, was attached to a foreign aid funding bill for next year that has not yet been debated by the Senate.
It also faces a veto threat from the White House because of an unrelated provision.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington declined to comment on the legislation.
In the past three years, Congress has passed bills to stop the relatively small amount of U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia, only to see the Bush administration circumvent the prohibitions.
Now, lawmakers are trying to close loopholes so that no more U.S. aid can be sent to the world's leading petroleum exporter.
"By cutting off aid and closing the loophole we send a clear message to the Saudi Arabian government that they must be a true ally in advancing peace in the Middle East," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat.
According to supporters of the legislation, the United States provided $2.5 million to Riyadh in 2005 and 2006.
The money has been used to train Saudis in counter-terrorism and border security and to pay for Saudi military officers to attend U.S. military school.
"Saudi Arabia propagates terrorism. We all know that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat. She added that Saudi youths had entered Iraq to "wage jihad" against U.S. forces fighting there.
Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the al Qaeda group that carried out the September 11 attacks, was expelled from the kingdom in 1991 for anti-government activities.
Lawmakers also complained that with Saudi Arabia's vast wealth from oil revenues, U.S. taxpayers do not need to subsidize training Saudis.
"With poor countries all over the globe begging us for help, why are we giving money to this oil-rich nation?" Berkley said.
The U.S. State Department has routinely criticized Saudi Arabia for religious intolerance, disenfranchisement of women and arbitrary justice.
U.N. committees and groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also have been critical of the Saudi legal system and its rights record, including punishments such as flogging and amputation.
Riyadh tends to dismiss the criticism by saying it follows the traditions of Islamic law.
Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest sites in Islam -- Mecca and Medina -- and to a conservative Sunni Muslim ideology often called Wahhabism.
Despite the efforts by the lawmakers to cut off aid, the United States has had a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia in terms of energy and security.
But recently Saudi King Abdullah has asserted a more robust leadership role in the Middle East, putting himself at odds with Washington over Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to the Energy Information Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy, crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia are the third largest after Canada and Mexico.
Until 2003, the United States kept up to 10,000 soldiers in Saudi Arabia to help enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq that was put in place after the first Gulf War in 1991. Most of those forces have been withdrawn.
Sunday, June 24, 2007