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National Defense Authorization Act 2020 and the Gulf

After months of negotiations, the House and Senate committees responsible for drafting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to fund the military and Department of Defense for the 2020 fiscal year reached an agreement related to its final $738 billion commitments. [1] The House of Representatives passed the bill on December, 11th in a 377Y-48N vote.[2] As it pertains specifically to the U.S.’ military policy in the Gulf region, certain Democrats have been adamant in their opposition to the bill, as the version ultimately decided-upon in the joint negotiations does not include language that had previously been included in the original House-passed legislation. Prior to the bill’s reconciling between the two chambers, it was believed that some members of the Democratic caucus viewed the  NDAA as another chance to pass priorities related to Yemen and Iran that had been vetoed by the President earlier this year.[3] Ultimately however, the agreed-upon iteration does not include a prohibition against the unauthorized use of military force against Iran, nor does it significantly prohibit expenditures used to support the military efforts of the Arab coalition in Yemen. Despite these being two sticking points for certain members of Congress, the agreed-upon version of the bill does formally codify a prohibition on U.S. in-flight refueling assistance to non-U.S. aircraft engaged in hostilities in Yemen, and includes language that would require countries seeking to use U.S.-technology in nuclear power plants to agree to the United Nation’s Additional Protocol, which requires International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of nuclear facilities.[4] While not mentioned by name, the impetus for such a restriction came about this past year over concerns related to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program.


Amidst the escalating tensions in the Gulf region that occurred over the summer of 2019 when there appeared to be real fears of the outbreak of a military conflict, some in Congress worked to ensure that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that had been used by the Bush Administration, was not misconstrued so as to give similar authorities for President Trump to declare war against Iran without Congressional approval.[5] As such, the original House 2020 NDAA (H.R. 2500) clarified the current law and stated that “no Federal funds may be used for any use of military force in or against Iran unless Congress has declared a war.”[6] The bill passed the House with this language in September 2019, however, it was scrapped from the final bill after negotiations with the Senate.[7] Of the removal of this subsection, two influential members of Congress, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced their opposition to the bill, and urged their colleagues to vote ‘nay.’[8]

Also, of note regarding Iran in the final version of the bill is the opening up of $1.68 billion in Iranian funds to compensate victims of the 1983 Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing.[9]


Regarding Yemen, there has been a similar watering-down of language. In the House’s legislation, Section 1270 F states, “none of the funds made available from the Special Defense Acquisition Fund….may be  made available to provide any assistance to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates if such assistance could be used by either country to conduct or continue hostilities in Yemen.”[10] However, in the reconciled bill section 1270 F has been scratched.[11] Of this elimination, Khanna and Sanders shared, “Voters would be appalled to know that instead of seizing the opportunity to end illegal U.S. participation in the horrific Saudi-led bombings of Yemen, Congress will continue to fund Trump’s unconstitutional war, which threatens to kill 24 million Yemenis facing starvation and disease.” Still, despite not cutting-off support to the Arab Coalition in Yemen, Section 1274 of the final legislation requires that the Department of State regularly produce a report that estimates the number of Yemeni civilian casualties as a result of Arab Coalition airstrikes. [12]

Saudi Arabia

In addition to Saudi Arabia’s inextricable linkage within the NDAA to language referencing Yemen, the compromise bill also includes directives in response to the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Both chambers agreed that the 2020 NDAA would require the Director of National Intelligence to submit a report to Congress to determine if any Saudi government officials had advance knowledge of the plot to kill Mr. Khashoggi, and document a list of individuals who have impeded the investigation into his murder.[13] However, the most strict portions of the House bill have been stripped from its final text, namely the imposition of sanctions and travel restrictions on certain Saudi officials until Congress is provided with sufficient proof that certain human rights criteria in Saudi Arabia are changing.[14]

Surviving the negotiations between the House and the Senate is a requirement that proposed nuclear cooperation between the United States and a foreign nation cannot be undertaken unless that nation is party to the Additional Protocol. This section, spearheaded by Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA30), is in direct response to previous concerns that the Trump Administration was pursuing cooperation with Saudi Arabia, despite it not being privy to a 123 Agreement (a requirement from subsection 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that outlines stipulations of nuclear cooperation[15]) with the United States. Now, Saudi Arabia (or any nation seeking to sign a 123 Agreement) will be obligated to agree to the Additional Protocol should it wish to move forward with nuclear collaboration, which means Riyadh will have to acquiesce to United Nations IAEA inspections.[16]

Now that the House has passed the spending bill, given that it has the support of President Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate is universally expected to approve the 2020 NDAA as well. From the perspective of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia should be pleased that some of the House’s harshest responses to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the War in Yemen will ultimately not be implemented. Additionally, Riyadh may find it appeasing that the nominally pro-Saudi President Trump will be able to offer military support against Iran without Congressional approval should the region escalate to military conflict. Still, the Kingdom may be disappointed by stricter guidelines for joint Saudi-U.S nuclear cooperation. Among progressive Democrats that have been most stalwart in their calls to rethink U.S.-Gulf relations, the bill may be a letdown, as the uncompromising aspects of halting assistance to Yemen, or the exerting Congressional authority over military escalation with Iran have yet to come to fruition.



[1] Rebecca Kheel, “Lawmakers Release Defense Bill With Parental Leave-for-Space-Force Deal,” The Hill, December 10, 2019.

[2] Leo Shane III, “Budget Bill Loaded With Military personnel Policies Advances in House,” Military Times, December 11, 2019.

[3] Sam Adler-Bell, “Democrats Want to End U.S. Support for the Yemen War – But They Might Continue Funding it Anyway,” The Intercept, November 27, 2019.

[4] “U.S. Defense Policy Bill Requires Nuclear Power Inspections for Saudi Arabia: Sources,” Reuters, December 9, 2019.

[5] Zachary Laub, “Why Iran Tensions Are Rekindling the AUMF Debate,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 3, 2019.

[6] U.S. Congress, House, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, H.R. 2500, 116th Congress, 1st Session, Introduced in House May 02, 2019.

[7] U.S. Congress, House, Conference Report to Accompany S.1790, December 9, 2019.

[8] Congressman Ro Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders, “Statement: Khanna, Sanders Condemn Pentagon Authorization ‘Giveaway,’ Urge Congress to Vote No,” Office of Congressman Ro Khanna, December 10, 2019.

[9] U.S. Congress, “FY2020 NDAA Summary,” December 09, 2019.

[10] U.S. Congress, House, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, H.R. 2500.

[11] U.S. Congress, House, Conference Report to Accompany S.1790, December 9, 2019

[12] U.S. Congress, House, Conference Report to Accompany S.1790, December 9, 2019.

[13] U.S. Congress, House, Conference Report to Accompany S.1790, December 9, 2019.

[14] U.S. Congress, House, Conference Report to Accompany S.1790, December 9, 2019.

[15] Samuel M Hickey, “Congress Must Push for a ‘Gold Standard’ Nuclear Agreement with Saudi Arabia,” The Hill, October 17th, 2019.

[16] “U.S. Defense Policy Bill Requires Nuclear Power Inspections for Saudi Arabia: Sources.”

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy

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