Senate confirms US ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Gen. John Abizaid is new ambassador

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

Gen. John Abizaid

(CNN) - The Senate overwhelmingly voted to confirm retired Gen. John Abizaid as the new US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, filling a post that has been vacant since the beginning of the Trump presidency.

The vote was 92-7.

Abizaid, the former head of US Central Command, was nominated to the post by President Donald Trump in November 2018. His confirmation will fill one key vacancy in the region -- the US Embassy has been without an ambassador since Joseph Westphal left in early January 2017.

Abizaid heads to Riyadh during a time of fraught diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. US lawmakers continue to push for accountability for Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist whose murder was believed to be orchestrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Senators pressed Abizaid on Khashoggi's killing and Saudi Arabia's other human rights abuses, including lashings, electrocutions, beatings, whippings, sexual abuse, raids, the alleged detention and torture of activists and royal family members, during his nomination hearing in early March.

"We should not accept these outrageous sorts of problems," Abizaid said of the abuses.

He added that "these short-term problems have to be solved now ... it requires forceful discussions. ... And I am prepared to have those discussions."

On Monday, the State Department publicly designated 16 people for the roles they played in Khashoggi's murder, rendering them and their immediate families "ineligible for entry into the United States." The Crown Prince was not on that list.

Just last week, the Kingdom arrested two US citizens in a crackdown of dissidents -- a move that comes following the detention and reported torture of another US citizen, Dr. Walid Fitaihi.

CNN's Ted Barrett, Nicole Gaouette, Michael Conte and Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.

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