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.
As the hearing continued, Rubio said MBS had gone “full gangster”, an assertion that was repeated by Senator Ron Johnson.
“He is reckless, he’s 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 the United States,” Rubio said.
Meanwhile, Menendez said senators were discussing whether to impose new sanctions on Saudi Arabia because of the murder of Khashoggi and the Trump administration’s failure to produce a report under the Global Magnitsky Act, a US law providing for action on human rights violations.
“The bottom line is the administration is in violation of the law,” Menendez told Al Jazeera outside the hearing.
A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Trump on October 10, 2018, triggering a Magnitsky investigation and asking for a determination on MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s killing.
US intelligence agencies have determined MBS ordered the killing, according to senators.
“The law is very clear. The administration had to give us, within 120 days of the letter that I and former chairman Corker sent to the president, to have a specific determination on the crown prince. And so now the question is, whether the Senate must act in having its own set of sanctions,” Menendez said.
Senators were frustrated when US Treasury Department officials offered no new information on Khashoggi during a closed-door briefing on Monday.
The US has not had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia since Trump became president in January 2017.
Abizaid, who led US Central Command during the Iraq war, is expected to easily win Senate confirmation.
With additional reporting by William Roberts from Washington, DC.