The US State Department and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia have reportedly failed to take the necessary steps to protect the health of diplomats and staff at the embassy in the kingdom during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has revealed.
According to the paper yesterday, dozens of the embassy’s employees became ill in June following a birthday party which they all attended, causing diplomats to unofficially contact members of Congress over fears that their health was at risk.
As a result of their exposure to the respiratory virus, over 20 people were placed under quarantine and a Sudanese driver for the US diplomats died of the illness.
The incident caused the embassy and its staff to believe that the US State Department and the Ambassador to the kingdom – John P Abizaid – did not take the virus’ severity seriously. Most employees and their families should have been evacuated from the country, they added.
The revelation comes two weeks after the US State Department refused to allow “high-risk individuals” to leave for the US in mid-June, despite embassies in Yemen and the Philippines having been closed.
Congress was alerted to the situation in mid-June after some staff sent an encrypted message to an official working for the House Democrat Representative Adam Schiff, whose office then forwarded the message on to the House Foreign Affairs Committee which oversees diplomatic missions.
According to the paper, the Committee’s chairman Eliot Engel said that it “immediately looked into reports about dangers to American personnel and citizens in Saudi Arabia as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” raising concerns over the Ambassador Abizaid’s staff and the lack of confidence they had in regards to their safety being taken care of.
Following the alert of Congress, on Saturday the State Department finally announced its permission for the “voluntary departure of nonemergency US personnel and family members from the US Mission to Saudi Arabia.” Speaking to the paper, the Department claimed that it had “no higher priority than ensuring the safety of US government personnel and US citizens,” and that the voluntary departure was “appropriate given current conditions associated with the pandemic.”
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, however, there are still some embassy officials and staff who say that this is not enough and that most of the 400 to 500 American employees at embassy in Riyadh and the two consulates must be evacuated, particularly amid concerns of a new spike in coronavirus cases predicted this month.