Diplomats in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak inside the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia went outside official channels to reach out to Congress last month, fearing their health was in jeopardy. Dozens had fallen ill following a birthday barbecue, and a Sudanese driver for the diplomats had died, the New York Times reports. An internal analysis found the embassy's medical unit was swamped, while a shortage of hospital beds was expected, with a spike in cases through July. But the State Department had refused to allow even high-risk individuals to depart in mid-June, when Yemen and the Philippines closed their embassies in Riyadh, per Al Jazeera. That's when some embassy officials "took the extraordinary step of conveying information to Congress outside official channels," per the Times, which spoke to one former and nine current officials.
Facing "quiet bipartisan congressional pressure," the State Department announced the "voluntary departure of nonemergency US personnel and family members from the US Mission to Saudi Arabia" on Saturday. However, the embassy's Emergency Action Committee had asked Ambassador John P. Abizaid to approve the evacuation of 400 to 500 US employees at the embassy and two consulates, in line with what had occurred at other embassies in late March. On Wednesday, the State Department described the voluntary departure as "appropriate," adding it "has no higher priority than ensuring the safety of US government personnel and US citizens." But former CIA clandestine officer Douglas London argues the Trump administration appears more concerned with soothing Saudi Arabia, perhaps in the hope of selling more than $500 million in arms and intelligence. (Read more US Embassy stories.)