A series of high profile controversies have put increased scrutiny on the United States’ cozy partnership with Saudi Arabia in recent months. But 776 days into the Donald Trump administration—the U.S. continues to operate without an ambassador to the Kingdom.
The murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, concerns over mass civilian casualties and famine stemming from the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, and now, the recent revelations that Walid Fitaihi, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen may have been tortured by Saudi officials — have created heightened urgency to fill this open post.
The role of a U.S. ambassador is complex but is chiefly about representing American interests abroad. When bilateral conflicts do arise, an ambassador’s role is to help mitigating tensions and serve as an essential communications source with Washington.
Higher level access in the power structure separates ambassadors from other low-level diplomatic officials, Ronald Neumann, President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, told The Globe Post.
But at the time of Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, no U.S ambassador to Saudi Arabia had been nominated or confirmed by the Senate. Christopher Henzel, the acting charge d’affaires at the American embassy in Riyadh, was the most senior authority figure on the ground. Yet due to the limitations of “ad interim” leadership, the State Department’s role in cooperative talks was limited.
As Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy pointed out on Twitter following the attack, “Both the King [Salman] and [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] MBS refuse to meet [with] anyone below an ambassador. So during entire Yemen and Khashoggi crisis, our embassy was virtually powerless.”
Power Up: Despite Trump's efforts, Senators won't let Khashoggi’s killing go. @ChrisMurphyCT on Congress’ next steps & how the Trump admin has emboldened MBS: “There is no question that the Saudis feel like they can literally get away with murder.” https://t.co/3riKa1xVop
— Jackie Alemany (@JaxAlemany) March 6, 2019
While the embassy’s influence may have been and continues to be limited, the executive branch has not felt adjacent radio silence. In the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has continued to deepen his personal relationship with Saudi leaders as he reportedly hopes for their cooperation with his yet-to-be-unveiled Middle East peace plan.
At the height of the international crisis, Kushner, a former real-estate executive with no prior foreign policy experience, carried out discussions with the royal court regarding details of the murder, but was not stationed in the region permanently as required of a true ambassador.
Since then, Kushner and Prince Mohammed — reportedly on a first name basis — have spoken several times on the phone and met last week for the first time since October to discuss “economic investment,” according to the White House.
The White House readout did not disclose whether they discussed the murder of Khashoggi, but Kushner and the broader Trump administration’s lack of direct government condemnation for the attack suggests that it was not a centerpoint of debate.
Officials and staffers in the U.S. embassy in Riyadh said they were shut out of Jared Kushner's trip to Saudi Arabia and the meetings he held with members of the Royal Court last week. No one from the embassy was in the meetings, Daily Beast reports. https://t.co/joGsT6nKM9
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 7, 2019
Another key player behind the scenes who continues to influence U.S.- Saudi relations is Yousef Al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States, and trusted confidant of Kushner. Called ‘the Most Powerful man in Washington You’ve Never Heard of,’ Al-Otaiba holds personal relationships with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other high-ranking U.S. officials, and has been tied to Bin Salman’s ascension to power in Saudi Arabia.
Yet leaked 2017 emails reportedly stolen from hacking group GlobalLeaks reveal a complicated picture of his true views of the Saudi Kingdom. In one email he wrote, “That whole country is fuckin coo coo!” while in another he praised the leadership of Bin Salman as being “on a mission to make the Saudi government more efficient.”
At this time, it’s not clear to what extent Al-Otaiba influences Kushner’s views on Saudi Arabian diplomacy, but their frequent phone calls, as well as the UAE’s partnership with Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, suggests an allied relationship with Kushner built upon shared priorities.
In November following Khashoggi’s murder, President Trump finally named an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, retired four-star Army general John P. Abizaid. He led the U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war, overseeing a 27-country region and retired from the Military in 2007, following 34 years of service. Coining the phrase, “long war,” to describe America’s long term strategy to mitigate terrorism, his potential strength and effectiveness as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been embraced by many leaders in Washington.
— Hiba Nasr (@HibaNasr) November 13, 2018
Abizaid’s confirmation hearing had not been scheduled for four months, while pressure for greater transparency and rebuke towards the Saudi government had only grown. Democratic Senators Ron Wyden, Martin Heinrich, Jack Reed, Chris Coons, and Kamala Harris introduced a bill last week demanding the National Intelligence Director submit a public report on the journalist’s murder.
Filling the open post took on even more urgency over the weekend, with revelations that U.S.-Saudi dual citizen Walid Fitaihi has been beaten, tortured and jailed inside Saudi Arabia for over a year. A state department spokesperson confirmed Fitaihi’s detainment Sunday, and National security advisor John Bolton noted that American diplomats currently have “consular access,” but “don’t really have any information at this point.”
It’s impossible to fully stipulate on the effect that Abizaid’s confirmation as ambassador would have on the current situation, but as Neumann said he may have only a “limited ability to influence the Saudis” due to President Trump and Kushner’s close relationship and high level of access to the King and the Crown Prince. In this vein, he also noted how, “an extremely careful ambassador would not be seen as the primary voice in Washington,” but emphasized how it is better to have a less influential ambassador than none at all.
Neumann was quick to emphasize, however, that it was not a strategic move on the part of President Trump to delay Abizaid’s nomination.
In the coming months, should Abizaid be confirmed, “he should be at the table, so it’s clear he’s part of the game. If not, Neumann stated, “then there’s very little role of having an ambassador.”
Marco Rubio says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has gone ‘full gangster’ at a confirmation hearing of John Abizaid, Trump's nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia https://t.co/m5e0pDVdve pic.twitter.com/He1qf5UoFY
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) March 7, 2019
Philip Leech-Ngo, senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Governance, told The Globe Post that the delayed confirmation of Abizaid may pose restrictions to Kushner and Mohammed Ben Salman’s relationship – a strain the White House does not want.
“They probably don’t want a career diplomat – who would be concerned with proper procedure and diplomatic norms – to interfere with their informal and flexible relationship,” he said.
Should Abizaid be confirmed in the coming days, “a dramatic increase in transparency is not very likely. Which is not really surprising given that the administration doesn’t seem to be interested in that anyway,” he added.
With the unfolding news of Fitaihi torture, the State Department has been the primary voice communicating with the media and greater public, confirming that U.S. diplomatic representatives have “raised the case” with the Saudi government. Kushner has not spoken publicly on Fitaihi’s situation, but he did meet with Saudi leadership last week to discuss his Middle East peace plan. Whether he discussed Khasshogi is not clear.
Kushner remains poised to continue his role as a central U.S. diplomatic figure with Saudi Arabia, and as Leech-Ngo highlighted, the U.S-Saudi relations “are (and have always been) opaque for a reason, because they’re designed to be. Appointing Abizaid is not going to change that.”