Washington: Senators challenged US President Donald Trump’s nominee to the post of United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia to take a tough line with the kingdom on human rights and other abuses.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch warned while Saudi Arabia was a strategically important ally, the alliance must be reconciled with American values.
As Trump’s nominee, retired four-star general John Abizaid, defended the US-Saudi relationship, senators accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as going “full gangster”.
They also condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and jailing and torturing its critics, including several women’s rights activists. They also brought up the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Abizaid’s hearing comes two days after senators received a briefing from administration officials on Khashoggi’s killing. Senators say they believe the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing.
If confirmed, Abizaid pledged to push for more information on the Khashoggi killing and have “forceful discussions” with Riyadh on other human rights abuses.
“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Turkey on October 2. His death fuelled discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that would end US support for the Saudi-led coalition, an important rebuke of Riyadh.
Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that US support should continue.
“Saudi Arabia has engaged in acts that are simply not acceptable,” said Risch, who held two classified briefings in the past two weeks for the panel to discuss Saudi Arabia.
Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s ranking Democrat, acknowledged the strategic importance of Saudi ties, amid threats from Iran.
“But we cannot let these interests blind us to our values or to our long-term interests in stability,” Menendez said. “Saudi Arabia is an important strategic partner on combatting terrorism, confronting Iran.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said Saudi Arabia was the US’s “most difficult” ally.
“They are also our most difficult partner right now because it almost asks us to agree to stay silent on grotesque violations of human rights both domestically and abroad and their crown prince is not making things easier,” Rubio said.