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U.S. House votes to ban aid to Saudi Arabia

by Richard Cow­an
REUTERS [1]

WASHINGTON, June 22 (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 Sept. 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 Sept. 11 attacks, was expelled from the king­dom in 1991 for anti-gov­ern­ment activ­i­ties.

OIL MONEY

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.