Late action on virus prompts fears over safety of US diplomats in Saudi Arabia

  • >>Mark Mazzetti and Edward Wong, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-02 10:58:04 BdST

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A near-empty street near the Al Rahma mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, April 24, 2020. The New York Times

Inside the sprawling US Embassy compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a coronavirus outbreak was spreading. Dozens of embassy employees became sick last month, and more than 20 others were quarantined after a birthday barbecue became a potential vector for the spread of the disease.

A Sudanese driver for the top diplomats died.

A bleak analysis from within the embassy that circulated in closed channels in Riyadh and Washington late last month likened the coronavirus situation in Saudi Arabia to that of New York City in March, when an outbreak was set to explode. The assessment said the response from the Saudi government — a close partner of the Trump White House — was insufficient, even as hospitals were getting overwhelmed and health care workers were falling ill.

Some in the embassy even took the extraordinary step of conveying information to Congress outside official channels, saying that they did not believe the State Department’s leadership or the American ambassador to the kingdom, John P Abizaid, were taking the situation seriously enough, and that most US Embassy employees and their families should be evacuated. The State Department took those steps months ago at missions elsewhere in the Middle East, Asia and Russia.

The episode, based on accounts from nine current and one former official, highlights the perils facing US diplomacy with a global pandemic still raging, and the frictions between front-line diplomats, intelligence officers and defense officials on one side and senior Trump administration officials on the other who are eager to preserve relations with nations like Saudi Arabia that have special ties with the Trump White House. The Saudi royal family has exercised enormous influence on Middle East and energy policies, as well as on controversial arms sales that President Donald Trump has personally championed.

The State Department appeared to react Saturday because of quiet bipartisan congressional pressure, announcing the “voluntary departure of nonemergency US personnel and family members from the US Mission to Saudi Arabia.” But some senior embassy officials see that as a half-measure. They had pushed for an evacuation of most of the 400 to 500 American employees at the Riyadh Embassy and two consulates, people with knowledge of the situation said.

In response to questions, the State Department said in a statement Wednesday that it “has no higher priority than ensuring the safety of US government personnel and US citizens.” It said that the voluntary departure “is appropriate given current conditions associated with the pandemic” and that “the pandemic has affected mission staff and our community in Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudi royal family would not welcome any move by the US government to reduce the number of diplomats and intelligence officers in the kingdom amid the pandemic, said Douglas London, a former CIA clandestine officer who served in numerous countries in the Middle East.

“The Saudis have never been subtle in discouraging US officials from outward actions that might cast the kingdom as appearing weak, incompetent or vulnerable in difficult times,” he said.

He said that placating the kingdom was even more important for the Trump administration, which has made America’s relationship with the royal family a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

“As the State Department weighs the safety of American personnel and their dependents in the midst of the kingdom’s COVID outbreak, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House remain more focused on the consequences to their relationship with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman than the risks to Americans, private and official alike,” he said.

Trump has made strengthening America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its young crown prince a focus of his foreign policy. The president has strongly advocated US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s role in leading an air war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, maintains close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed, and the Trump administration is trying to push through sales to the kingdom of two arms and intelligence surveillance packages worth more than $500 million, despite a congressional freeze on the exports. Last year, the administration declared an “emergency” to bypass a congressional hold on sales of $8.2 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — a potentially illegal action that became the focus of a State Department inspector general investigation.

The US Embassy in Riyadh, a walled enclave dotted with palm trees in the Diplomatic Quarter of the capital city, is one of the most important US diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and home to one of the biggest CIA stations in the region. Hundreds of US diplomats, intelligence officers and their families live in the embassy compound and nearby residential complexes.

The growing alarm in the US Embassy in recent weeks has come as Saudi Arabia and its neighbors struggle with a surge of coronavirus cases and embassy officials raise serious doubts about the kingdom’s readiness to deal with the pandemic.

The Saudi government announced it would drastically reduce the number of Muslims allowed to do the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that brings millions of people to Mecca to fulfill one of the requirements of the Islamic faith. It is believed to be the first time since the modern kingdom was founded in 1932 that the pilgrimage, scheduled to begin in late July, was effectively canceled. Dozens of members of the royal family fell ill this spring.

Saudi Arabia has reported about 4,000 new cases of coronavirus per day, among the fastest-growing caseloads in the world. Despite that, the government has ended lockdown measures.

The analysis that circulated in Washington, written by embassy staff members and reviewed by The New York Times, said that the cases were likely to spike through July and that there would probably be a shortage of hospital beds. The embassy’s own medical unit was already overwhelmed with the rise of coronavirus cases among mission employees and their families.

Around mid-June, the embassy’s emergency action committee, composed of senior officials at the diplomatic outpost, approved departure for “high-risk individuals,” the message said, but the State Department had denied the request and advised the embassy “to do whatever it can to hold on until the COVID problem improves.” At the missions, working from home became the norm.

The alarm in Congress sounded two weeks ago when an encrypted message making similar points as the embassy analysis arrived in the inbox of a congressional official working for Rep. Adam B Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The sender did not purport to be an employee of the US government, according to a congressional official, but the message contained detailed assertions about the coronavirus threat to embassy personnel in the kingdom. The message was sent on behalf of some embassy employees, another person familiar with it said.

Schiff’s office passed the message to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has oversight over the diplomatic missions. Its chairman, Rep Eliot L Engel,  said the committee “immediately looked into reports about dangers to American personnel and citizens in Saudi Arabia as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Based on the message and follow-up inquiries, congressional officials became concerned about the rising tensions inside the embassy, and the lack of confidence by some senior employees there in Abizaid’s ability to prioritize the safety of US personnel above political considerations.

Abizaid, a former Army four-star general who speaks Arabic, once commanded all US forces in the Middle East as the head of US Central Command, which works closely with Saudi Arabia. He was the top general in the region as the Iraq War intensified in the mid-2000s.

Congressional officials requested a briefing from the State Department. Last week, agency officials gave two briefings to aides from Republican and Democratic congressional offices, and the aides put pressure on the officials to allow employees to leave Saudi Arabia.

Department officials said that 32 of the 50 or so embassy employees confirmed or presumed to have COVID-19 had recovered, one congressional official said. Most of the patients were not Americans.

The driver for Abizaid and his deputy is one of at least two US diplomatic mission employees in the Middle East and North Africa who have died, the official said. The State Department confirmed the death of a staff employee in Saudi Arabia.

More recently, officials on the embassy’s emergency action committee recommended to Abizaid that most US employees should be ordered to evacuate, with only emergency personnel staying. Abizaid has not acted on that. (The State Department did not answer specific questions about Abizaid’s decisions.)

On Saturday, the department announced the “voluntary departure” decision for the three missions in Saudi Arabia. The message said the department was trying to arrange repatriation flights since international air transportation had been shut down. The announcement is not a significant step beyond a similar action the State Department took in March that applied to all missions worldwide and that ended in May.

Some officials said that given the surge in COVID-19 cases in Saudi Arabia and the shortage of adequate medical facilities — at least one American citizen with COVID-19 was turned away at a hospital — the State Department and Abizaid were still failing to take the proper actions.

In doing what is formally called an “authorised departure,” the department is most likely leaving the bulk of the embassy staff in place. The more drastic step of an “ordered departure” — which the chief of mission has the right to take — would require most employees to evacuate, leaving only a skeleton crew remaining to handle emergencies.

Other missions in the Middle East have already gone to ordered departure based on the virus threat, including in Beirut and Baghdad in late March.

The State Department shuttered its consulate in the Chinese city where the initial coronavirus outbreak occurred, Wuhan, and the Vladivostok consulate in Russia. At other missions in China, including the embassy in Beijing, as well as ones in Indonesia and Mongolia, the department ordered the departures of any family member under 21 — so most of the parents left as well.

c.2020 The New York Times Company