Oregon’s Jeff Merkley cites vanished students in vote against Saudi ambassador pick

Oregon’s Jeff Merkley cites vanished students in vote against Saudi ambassador pick


By:  Shane Dixon Kavanaugh

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley joined six other senators in voting against the Trump administration’s pick for ambassador to Saudi Arabia, citing the Saudi government’s suspected role in helping some of its citizens escape prosecution in the United States, among other concerns.

“Over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has become more brazen than ever before in its malign activities on the world stage,” Merkley, a Democrat, said in a statement.

He also referenced the Persian Gulf kingdom’s military conflict in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence officials believe Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered.

“We need a wholesale rethinking of how this administration relates to Saudi Arabia, and until there’s evidence it’s coming, I will not support this or other nominations covering Saudi policy,” Merkley said.

Still, retired Gen. John Abizaid sailed through his Senate confirmation Wednesday, with lawmakers, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, voting 92-7 in favor of the West Point graduate and former head of U.S. Central Command during the Iraq War.

A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Merkley used his allotted time during Abizaid’s nomination hearing last month to question the retired general about university students from Saudi Arabia fleeing Oregon and other states after being accused of serious crimes, including rape and manslaughter.

An ongoing investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive to date has found such cases in eight states and Canada, bringing the total number of Saudi suspects who escaped prosecution to 25.

In two of the cases – one in Oregon and one in Ohio – state and federal authorities believe Saudi officials played a direct role in helping the suspects escape, which has prompted Merkley and Wyden to seek answers from the Trump administration.

At the hearing, Abizaid told Merkley he’d support efforts to look into these cases.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., has said that, as a policy, it will cover the cost of bail and legal fees for any citizen facing criminal charges in the U.S. It has denied that it’s played any role in helping Saudi students skip bail and flee the country.

Though considered a major strategic ally and trading partner, Saudi Arabia doesn’t share an extradition treaty with the U.S.

In January, Merkley introduced a bill that would, among other things, request the State Department to lobby the Saudi government to turn over any of its citizens accused of crimes in the U.S. who are now residing in the kingdom.

Read Merkley’s full statement below.

General Abizaid has a distinguished resume, and I appreciate the time he took to meet with me during his confirmation process. He is clearly knowledgeable about the region and I respect his commitment to continue serving his country.

This administration’s deep mishandling of the relationship with Saudi Arabia is a rolling foreign policy disaster, however, and I cannot support any nominee who cannot commit to changing the policy direction. Over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has become more brazen than ever before in its malign activities on the world stage. Its brutal war in Yemen has created the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today. The Kingdom committed a coldblooded assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident. It has a pattern of spiriting Saudi students out of the United States so that they can evade justice for serious crimes they commit within our borders.

Whether it’s because of the president’s or Jared Kushner’s hidden financial entanglements, pattern of coziness with authoritarian rulers and disregard for human rights, or simply terrible judgment, the Trump Administration has not stood up to Saudi leaders, but has instead rewarded them with smiling photo ops and ever-bigger arms deals, compromising our values and our standing in the world. We need a wholesale rethinking of how this administration relates to Saudi Arabia, and until there’s evidence it’s coming, I will not support this or other nominations covering Saudi policy.