Retired Gen. John Abizaid’s nomination hearing Wednesday to be the Trump administration’s first ambassador to Saudi Arabia became a bipartisan rant about the kingdom’s “gangster”-like abuses, its regional disruptions under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the potential impact on US national security interests.
Recounting a string of abuses that sounded more like a compendium of medieval thuggery, lawmakers pressed Abizaid on the kingdom’s domestic repression, including lashings, electrocutions, beatings, whippings, sexual abuse, raids, the alleged detention and torture of activists and royal family members, and most recently the alleged torture of a US citizen.
Outside the kingdom, lawmakers noted, the Crown Prince is driving a devastating war with Yemen; has curtailed diplomatic relations and investment with Canada after objecting to tweets about human rights abuses; very likely ordered the premeditated murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi; kidnapped the Prime Minister of Lebanon; and triggered a spat between Gulf allies that undermines US attempts to create a united Arab front against Iran.
“He’s gone full gangster,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, “and it’s difficult to work with a guy like that.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who’s the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “the list of human rights violations is so long, it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on there.”
Saudi Arabia has become a fault line between Congress and the White House, unifying the fractious body even as President Donald Trump and his administration officials resist congressional attempts to hold the kingdom or its 33-year-old de facto ruler to account.
Administration officials argue the Saudis are too important to crucial foreign policy goals in the Middle East, including funding some part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, fighting extremism and especially countering Iran, an argument that Abizaid and Matthew Tueller, the nominee to be ambassador to Iraq, echoed in the Senate Foreign Relations hearing.
In response to lawmakers’ calls to restrict weapons sales to the kingdom, the President has also pointed to – and wildly inflated – the value of Saudi arms purchases, saying they guarantee American jobs that can’t be risked.
Abizaid, 67, came before Congress a few weeks after the White House skipped a deadline to report to Congress on who bears responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment, and two days after a classified briefing on the administration’s probe into the death of the Washington Post journalist, a father of four. That briefing was “worthless,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, said Monday.
The Saudis deny that bin Salman had any involvement in Khashoggi’s death, just as they deny that female activists jailed for lobbying for the right to drive have been tortured. The activists have been held for over nine months without a trial.
While both Democrats and Republicans at Abizaid’s nomination hearing decried the “grotesque violations of human rights,” as Rubio put it, Democrats touched on the close ties between Trump and the Saudis, including the relationship of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with bin Salman, which has raised conflict of interest questions.
Trump has personally benefited from business with the Saudis in the past and while he has been in office. The House recently launched a probe that will examine whether he and Kushner might be pushing potentially dangerous foreign policy decisions for personal financial benefit.
A Kushner family property mired in disastrous debt was purchased by a company with deep ties to Gulf countries. That company, Brookfield Business Partners, also owns Westinghouse Electric, which Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been touting to Saudi Arabia to build its nuclear plants, according to a House report.
The potential for a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia ruled by an impetuous young leader unnerves many. “Someone who has a penchant for recklessness, for escalatory foreign policies, to retain the capability to enrich, I believe would be an incredibly dangerous precedent to set,” Rubio said.
Under questioning from Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Abizaid said that “in some future there can be nuclear power in Saudi Arabia, but … there needs to be the strictest controls possible.”
“The issue is” the US should not allow plutonium or any other such substance to be sent “somewhere where it can be used as a bomb,” Abizaid said.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, didn’t name Kushner, who reportedly has privately counseled the Crown Prince on weathering the Khashoggi killing, but asked Abizaid how he intended to deal with an administration that “works outside the usual channels.”
For the last two years, the White House has seemingly felt no pressure to put a representative in Riyadh, and instead Kushner and Trump himself have led much of the outreach to the Saudis. “You will have to contend with a White House that at times seems to be running its own bilateral show,” Menendez told Abizaid.
Abizaid, a former head of US Central Command, which oversees a broad span of the world including much of the Middle East, said he “will insist on” being briefed on meetings. He added that “I know my chain of command, and my chain of command” is through the President and the secretary of state.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon focused on Saudi abuses inside the US – citizens of the kingdom accused of “sexual abuse against children, manslaughter, rape” in his state who have been whisked out of the country before they could face justice.
Republicans focused in particular on the Crown Prince’s particular role in sowing instability. “The Crown Prince is making this very, very difficult for us,” said committee Chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican.
Rubio was blunter.
The Crown Prince is “reckless, he is ruthless, he has a penchant for escalation, for taking high risks, confrontational in his foreign policy approach and I think increasingly willing to test the limits of what he can get away with, with the United States,” Rubio said, calling Saudi Arabia “our most difficult partner now.”
Risch raised the challenge before them: “reconciling” how the US could work with Saudi Arabia “at the same time that Saudi Arabia is engaged in acts that are simply not acceptable.”
Abizaid tried to counter, saying that “our relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than just the relationship with the Prince,” an answer that belies the iron control that US intelligence services have concluded the young man wields over the country.
Abizaid also addressed the human rights abuses, including Khashoggi’s killing, the torture and detention of women lobbying for the right to drive and the alleged torture of Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a US citizen. “We should not accept these outrageous sorts of problems,” he said.
He added that “these short-term problems have to be solved now … it requires forceful discussions. … And I am prepared to have those discussions.”
Abizaid referred to an ambitious Saudi reform program called Vision 2030 as reason for optimism, though analysts and investors say the Prince’s internal repression has a withering effect on investor confidence.
“If that plan can succeed with the support of the international community, I believe we will see a change, an important change, for the international community,” the retired four-star general said, pointing to the Prince’s vision of “a more tolerant view of Saudi Wahhabi Islam.”
Lawmakers, by and large, did not sound satisfied.
“The locking up of women dissidents is not exactly a great advertisement for a more tolerant vision of Islam,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.