The Presidential Candidates on Saudi Arabia
from Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

The Presidential Candidates on Saudi Arabia

July 30, 2019 11:51 am (EST)

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CFR invited the presidential candidates challenging President Trump in the 2020 election to articulate their positions on twelve critical foreign policy issues. Candidates’ answers are posted exactly as they are received. View all questions here.


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Given the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, what changes, if any, would you make to U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia?

Joe Biden

Joe Biden Former vice president of the United States

I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective, and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East. President Trump has issued Saudi Arabia a dangerous blank check. Saudi Arabia has used it to extend a war in Yemen that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, pursue reckless foreign policy fights, and repress its own people. Among the most shameful moments of this presidency came after the brutal Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Trump defended not the slain U.S. resident but his killers. America’s priorities in the Middle East should be set in Washington, not Riyadh.

President Trump’s first overseas trip was to Saudi Arabia. As President, I will rally the world’s democracies and our allies in the Free World. We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons. We should recognize the value of cooperation on counterterrorism and deterring Iran. But America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones. I would want to hear how Saudi Arabia intends to change its approach to work with a more responsible U.S. administration.

Read all of Joe Biden’s responses.

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Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg Former mayor of New York City Withdrawn

The U.S.-Saudi relationship remains critical both to stability in the Middle East and to global energy markets. The U.S. should work with the Saudis to counter Iran’s hegemonic behavior in the region, manage reasonable oil prices and reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But we should not give Riyadh a blank check as President Trump has done. I would make it clear in public and private that the Saudi government must work to end the human rights crisis in Yemen and improve its own human rights record, including the way it treats women. The extra-judicial killing of any journalist, let alone a permanent U.S. resident employed by a major American news organization, is abhorrent and runs counter to core American values. The assault on Khashoggi was an assault on our democratic principles and we have to stand up so the rest of the world sees that no financial or strategic relationship justifies such an action. 

Read all of Michael Bloomberg’s responses.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker Senator, New JerseyWithdrawn

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a stark reminder of the human rights violations perpetuated by the highest levels of leadership in Saudi Arabia. Despite the international condemnation for the murder of Khashoggi, the most senior officials implicated remain free, and the Saudi government has doubled down on its repressive tactics. The Saudi-led coalition's indiscriminate bombing and unlawful blockading of essential goods to Yemen's civilian population has created a humanitarian disaster. Despite this record and repeated opposition from Congress, the Trump Administration continues to sell weapons to the Saudis that can be used in Yemen against innocent civilians. 

We must be a nation that leads with our values. We need a reset in our relationship with Saudi Arabia, starting with an end to U.S. arms sales and transfer of nuclear technology. I have voted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses and killings of innocent civilians in Yemen. We must also continue to push for accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi through a legitimate investigation and sanctions on those responsible for his death. 

Read all of Cory Booker’s responses.

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock Governor of Montana Withdrawn

The Trump Administration has not held Saudi Arabia accountable either for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi or its conduct of the war in Yemen. While the U.S. has important interests in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, it does not serve U.S. interests to allow the Saudis to act with impunity against its own citizens or in Yemen. There needs to be a credible investigation of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the U.S. should press the Saudis to improve press freedom and the treatment of journalists. The U.S. should stop its direct support for Saudi Arabia’s reckless war in Yemen, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians with millions on the verge of starvation. Our priorities must be to facilitate the peace process between the warring parties and to deliver humanitarian aid and relief to the people of Yemen.

Read all of Steve Bullock’s responses.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg Former mayor of South Bend, Indiana Withdrawn

The United States must halt military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. The brutal war has brought the country to the verge of famine and killed tens of thousands of civilians. As president, I would suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemen war, but also cut off the spare parts and maintenance for equipment needed to prolong that war. Ending our own involvement in the war in Yemen is just a first step. We need to increase our diplomatic efforts and work with our allies to end the conflict itself, which has generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and helped to spread extremism. 

We must also reset our relationship with Saudi Arabia, so that our interests and values drive the relationship -- not the other way around. Our strongest alliances must be founded upon shared commitments to international law and human rights. We must be pragmatic about intelligence-sharing: totally stopping such cooperation could hinder our ability to detect and thwart threats emanating from Yemen, including from the regional al-Qaeda affiliate.   But the Saudi government should not get a pass on the state-sponsored murder of an American resident abroad, nor should they be able to buy our silence on human rights abuses -- including killing civilians in Yemen and supporting extremist ideology across the Muslim world -- through purchases of US weapons.

Read all of Pete Buttigieg’s responses.

Julian Castro

Julian Castro Former secretary of housing and urban developmentWithdrawn

The status quo of our relationship with Saudi Arabia is in opposition with our values and does not serve our long-term interests. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the continuing Saudi-led war in Yemen, and human rights abuses within Saudi Arabia, make clear it is long past time to reassess our relationship with the Saudi government and its ruling monarchy.

That will start with an immediate end to arms sales, military and intelligence support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, an end to all exports of nuclear technology, equipment, or materials to Saudi Arabia, the imposition of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on the individuals responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and the withdrawal of any U.S. forces President Trump plans on deploying in the country. I will also order a full investigation into the full extent of the relationship between President Trump, his family, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and ensure the United States addresses Saudi human rights violations, including its treatment of women, the Shia minority in the country’s East, and the condition of guest workers from India, Bangladesh, and other countries. 

While the United States will continue to have limited areas of cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as we would with any country, it is clear that the Saudi government and its leaders have taken advantage of the United States’ willful ignorance under the Trump administration. Going forward, I believe such cooperation must be significantly constrained until significant reforms are made.

Lastly, I believe that every aspect of U.S. foreign policy should address climate change, our greatest long term national security threat. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a result of the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, there is arguably no greater U.S. government subsidy for fossil fuels than our decades-long defense and support of Saudi Arabia. I will work to transition to a clean energy economy, with the added benefit of freeing the United States from any dependence on Saudi oil.

Read all of Julian Castro’s responses.

John Delaney

John Delaney Former representative, MarylandWithdrawn

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocious act and should cause a reset in our overall relationship with Saudi Arabia. I would demand a clearer accounting than what we have received to date from the Saudi government. While I would not completely cut ties and would continue to do essential business with the country, I would not receive any Saudi official in the White House, and I would not extend high-level U.S. official visits to Saudi Arabia. I would impress upon Saudi officials the importance of respecting human rights at home and abroad. Additionally, I support ending U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia for the purpose of carrying out their military operations in Yemen. My approach to foreign policy will include protection of journalists, wherever they may serve.

Read all of John Delaney’s responses.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, New York Withdrawn

We must stop aiding other countries’ wars that serve only to create grave human rights tragedies and turn people against us. My consistent position as senator has been to condemn and take steps to stop human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia - whether it has been stopping arms sales that would be used in Yemen, refueling Saudi planes that bomb civilians, freeing political prisoners, or supporting accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

Under my presidency, the United States would support accountability for the horrific and barbaric murder of Jamal Khashoggi, including sanctions even if evidence implicates the highest office in Saudi Arabia. My administration would end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, whether refueling of Saudi planes that bomb Yemen’s civilians or selling munitions to Saudi Arabia that have created the carnage in Yemen. We stand with our allies’ defensive needs, but we do not gain greater security when we aid their indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Read all of Kirsten Gillibrand’s responses.

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris Senator, California Withdrawn

First of all, we need to end U.S. support for the catastrophic Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has driven the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. I voted to do just that earlier this year. I also voted to block the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia that only help continue this atrocity. Unfortunately, President Trump vetoed both of those measures. He has stood in lockstep with Riyadh, even turning a blind eye to the heinous assassination of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The United States and Saudi Arabia still have mutual areas of interest, such as counterterrorism, where the Saudis have been strong partners. And we should continue to coordinate on that front. But we need to fundamentally reevaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia, using our leverage to stand up for American values and interests.

Read all of Kamala Harris's responses.

Seth Moulton

Seth Moulton Representative, Massachusetts Withdrawn

One of the biggest problems with American foreign policy today is that it’s defined by inertia, more a relic of the past than a plan for the future. Nowhere is that more evident than our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi leadership is playing a double game of implementing some limited societal and economic reforms while, at the same time, cracking down on dissidents — including Jamaal Khashoggi, the journalist living in the United States who the Saudis brutally murdered. In 2020 and beyond, we need to push the Saudis on human rights, stop giving them weapons to kill civilians in Yemen, and make the terms of our alliance conditional on their compliance.

Read all of Seth Moulton’s responses.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke Former representative, TexasWithdrawn

Trump’s failure to impose consequences for the murder of a U.S. resident, his refusal to comply with a congressionally-mandated review of Saudi behavior, and his veto of bipartisan legislation that would have blocked arms sales, have given the Saudis latitude to set a new normal in the bilateral relationship in which the range of American interests is reduced to maintaining the kingdom as a consumer of American weapons. 

This must change. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia should be grounded in a clear expression of American interests and values. Otherwise, the Saudis will continue to believe that our security relationship is a blank check for their destabilizing behavior—fueling war and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, kidnapping the prime minister of a sovereign nation, assassinating an American resident. These abhorrent actions—not U.S. forthrightness about its values—weaken the bilateral relationship and threaten the international community. 

As President, I will call for an end to the repression of women’s rights activists, impose Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, respond to the clearly-articulated desire of the American people to end US involvement in the war in Yemen and halt arms sales to the kingdom until it commits to a cessation of hostilities and peace negotiations. A constructive US-Saudi relationship is worth preserving, but only if Riyadh is willing to engage in a significant course correction.

Read all of Beto O'Rourke responses.

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick Former governor, Massachusetts Withdrawn

Saudi Arabia has been a longstanding and important historic ally.  The United States has significant military and economic relationships with Saudi Arabia, which I will respect as President.  Nevertheless, we cannot, consistent with the values stated above, accept Saudi misconduct on the world stage.  Saudi Arabia’s official complicity in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the Kingdom’s war in Yemen, with its indiscriminate targeting of civilians, are appalling and risk disqualifying the Kingdom from membership among civilized nations. 

We must reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia.  My administration will cease supplying Saudi Arabia with arms and support for the Yemen campaign.  We will engage in a strategic re-assessment of our relationships in the Gulf to better align those relationships with our historic commitment to democracies.  My administration will deploy the power of the United States selectively and thoughtfully to protect our national interests and project our values in the region.

Read all of Deval Patrick’s responses.

Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan Representative, Ohio Withdrawn

The war in Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe that is hindering our international fight against terrorism and undercutting our need for diplomatic pragmatism. We need to stop logistical and fiscal support to Saudi Arabia immediately. We cannot continue to be complicit in the killing of innocents and we cannot be tied to crimes of the Saudi government. They’re our allies and I will support their interests, but I cannot support their war in Yemen.

Read all of Tim Ryan’s responses.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Senator, Vermont Withdrawn

The reality is that the U.S.-Saudi relationship needs to change. It is based on cheap oil, millions of dollars of arms sales, a complete disregard for Saudi Arabia's human rights violations, and willful blindness when it comes to Saudi's spread of religious radicalism. We must immediately end our support for Saudi Arabia's carnage in Yemen and clearly signal Riyadh that we categorically reject their not-too-unsubtle efforts to drag the US into a conflict with Iran. But we must also recognize that for the sake of stability in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia needs to be part of the solution. It’s a hard reality that the United States sometimes has to work with undemocratic governments to protect our own security, but we should also recognize that relying on corrupt authoritarian regimes to deliver us security is a losing bet. Democratic governments that are accountable to their own people, which share our values and have open societies make far better partners in the long term.

Read all of Bernie Sanders’s responses.

Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak Former representative, PennsylvaniaWithdrawn

We recently watched President Putin give a “high-five” to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who felt empowered enough to murder an American resident in his embassy because -— as populist autocrats from Hungary to the Philippines, and Turkey to Venezuela have all demonstrated — there is no longer reason to be concerned about consequences from a rules-based world order.  This is unacceptable, as is Saudi Arabia’s and its conduct in Yemen’s civil war.

For decades the United States considered Saudi Arabia our closest ally in the Arab world, even though this meant turning a blind eye to their egregious human rights record, including abhorrent treatment of women. The American people accepted this situation because we were told Saudi Arabia was such a critical exporter of oil that it would cripple the world economy if we interrupted the status quo — even though they did not hesitate to turn off the spigot when it is in its interest to do so; fail to give us military bases when we needed them; or continue to support terrorism that harmed us. Especially after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the horrible war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has made clear that its incoming leader will fail to have the values necessary to change the nation’s illiberal behavior. We must, again, work within and in leadership of a global concord to compel behavior by the Saudis that moves it toward collective interests of a rules-based world order. So much is at stake: oversight of the nuclear power plants it is building; sleight-of-hand support for terrorism; human rights within Saudi Arabia; the chance to have a moderate regime in the center of the Arab world; the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen; changes needed to address climate change; and of course the possibility of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia exploding into conflict. America can help solve these problems, but only if we restore our leadership and build up the rules-based world order.

Read all of Joe Sestak’s responses.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren Senator, Massachusetts Withdrawn

Saudi Arabia has increasingly pursued a regional and international agenda that does not align with U.S. interests. The Saudi-led war in Yemen exacerbates instability and extremism in the region and has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Saudi policies in Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt and its irresponsible conflict with Qatar undermine U.S. security. The Saudi government’s role in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its repression of its own citizens insults all who respect human rights and calls into question its reliability as a partner. 

While the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will continue to share common objectives -- for example to prevent terrorism in the region -- it is time to reorient our policy in the region away from a reflexive embrace of the Saudi regime and toward one that focuses on U.S. interests. We must be crystal clear about our expectations if Saudi Arabia wants a real partnership. If the Saudi regime is unable or unwilling to meet those expectations, they can expect real consequences in terms of a more limited relationship moving forward.

Read all of Elizabeth Warren’s responses.

Bill Weld

Bill Weld Former governor, MassachusettsWithdrawn

Business as usual with Saudi Arabia has to be over. The country has been supporting militant Salafists who have been trying to kill us – and succeeded on 9/11 and a host of other places – for decades now. We need to stand against aggression, no matter who engages in it, and rally support for that position. The peace of the world depends on our doing so.

Read all of Bill Weld’s responses.

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson AuthorWithdrawn

The United States needs to take a much stronger position with regard to Saudi Arabia. Although great measures were taken to distract the American people, it was mainly Saudis who attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11, not Iraqis. 

When the US attacked Iraq, we decimated Iraq and strengthened the hand of Iran in the Iraq-Iran regional contest for power. The Saudis are now competing with Iran for regional hegemony.

The Saudi-led genocidal war in Yemen is being fought with US support. U.S. Air Force pilots are reportedly providing in-air refueling so Saudi and UAE warplanes can bomb Yemen, and US special forces are fighting alongside Saudi troops in what the New York Times called “a continuing escalation of America’s secret wars.”

We must stop US involvement in the war in Yemen, as Congress has voted to do. The Constitution gives the power of declaring war to Congress and we must respect the authority of Congress in this regard. 

We should reject all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

We should press for an independent criminal investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi including any role that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have played in his death, as called for by the UN expert on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, after her five month investigation revealed the operation was carefully planned and endorsed by high level Saudis. American intelligence officials have concluded that the Crown Prince ordered the killing.

Read all of Marianne Williamson’s responses.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang Entrepreneur Withdrawn

First off, the United States should be providing no aid to Saudi Arabia in its assault on Yemen. It’s creating a humanitarian crisis that ranks amongst the worst of all time. We should end all support for this situation - logistics, arms sales, refueling efforts, intelligence.

The United States must take action against Saudi Arabia given the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. That violent and illegal action against someone living in the United States must not go unanswered. It also hints at the larger conflict of values between our two countries. While we must be pragmatic in our foreign policy in recognizing that we will often have to deal with countries that have bad values, we should also be sure to always let our values lead us. A reset of the relationship with Saudi Arabia under this understanding would prevent us from getting involved in another conflict like the one in Yemen by centering our diplomacy around our values and ideals.

Read all of Andrew Yang’s responses.


This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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