US official under fire over Saudi flap

Congressman asks trade rep. to explain defense of Saudi boycott of Israel.

King Abdullah Saudi 88 (photo credit: )
King Abdullah Saudi 88
(photo credit: )
In the wake of a report in last week's Jerusalem Post, an influential US congressman has sent a letter to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) pressing her to explain her defense of Saudi Arabia's record on the Arab boycott of Israel, after Riyadh's envoy to Washington admitted that the embargo remains in place. Florida Democrat Rep. Robert Wexler wrote to USTR Susan Schwab after reading an exclusive report in the Post on comments made by Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki al-Faisal. Speaking at a June 19 "policy lunch" at the Brookings Institution, al-Faisal acknowledged that his country continued to bar Israeli-made goods from entering the kingdom, saying that it was "an issue of national sovereignty," according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by the Post. He added that US officials had been "informed" of the continuation of the boycott, an assertion which contradicted previous public statements made by the USTR, including as recently as last month. In May, Schwab told members of the US Senate Finance Committee at her nomination hearings that reports that the Saudis were violating their pledge to dismantle the anti-Israel boycott were "incorrect". She insisted that her office had received "assurances" from the Saudis that they were no longer enforcing the boycott. In a press release issued last year, then-USTR Rob Portman said, "Saudi Arabia is legally obligated to provide most-favored-nation treatment to all WTO Members, including Israel." The Bush administration conditioned Saudi Arabia's entry into the World Trade Organization on its removal of the boycott, and the Saudis were allowed to join the group in December only after pledging to do so. The WTO, which aims to promote free trade, prohibits members from engaging in discriminatory practices such as boycotts or embargoes. In the letter to Schwab, Rep. Wexler wrote, "Ambassador Al-Faisal's assertion that Saudi Arabia continues to enforce the primary boycott of Israel stands in stark violation of its commitments under the WTO." The envoy's remarks, Wexler noted, "seemingly contradict former representative Portman's claims and, to my knowledge, contradict all other public statements on this issue made by USTR." "Ambassador Schwab," he wrote, "it is clear that either the Saudi government is acting duplicitously or there is a misunderstanding between Congress and the USTR." "At this juncture," the letter concludes, "I respectfully request that you explain to what extent - if at all - USTR was made aware of Saudi Arabia's ongoing enforcement of the Arab League boycott of Israel, and please explain the response of USTR to the aforementioned Saudi claims." The Saudi ambassador's admission that his country continues to enforce the boycott confirmed reports that first appeared in the Post over the past few months. As the paper first reported in March, the Saudis played host to a major international conference aimed at intensifying the anti-Israel boycott. In May, a Saudi delegation took part in a meeting of the Arab League's boycott office in Damascus, and Saudi customs officials contacted by the Post said Israeli-made goods were barred from entering. In an interview with the Post last week, Wexler said, "Saudi Arabia is violating its commitments to the US, and the Bush administration needs to confront them on this... if the Saudis are being duplicitous," he warned, "there need to be consequences."