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Top US Republican senator slams Saudi crown prince for going 'full gangster'

Marco Rubio's comments come during hearing for Trump's nominee for US ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been under fire amid allegations of ordering journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder (AFP)

Republican Senator Marco Rubio accused Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince of going "full gangster" in the latest display of divisions within the US president's own party over Washington's relationship with Mohammed bin Salman.

Speaking at a Senate hearing for President Donald Trump's nominee for the next US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Rubio launched into a tirade against bin Salman, also known as MBS.

"He's gone full gangster," Rubio said.

"He is reckless. He's ruthless. He has a penchant for escalation, for taking high risks, confrontational in his foreign policy approach and I think increasingly willing to test the limits of what he can get away with [with] the United States."

Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, has been under increased scrutiny and faces ongoing global criticism over allegations of playing a role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Washington Post columnist and critic of Riyadh.

'He's gone full gangster. He is reckless. He's ruthless. He has a penchant for escalation, for taking high risks'

- US Senator Marco Rubio

While Saudi officials have vigorously denied MBS's involvement in the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, the CIA and the US Senate have concluded that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's assassination.

On Wednesday, Republican Senator Ron Johnson echoed Rubio's criticisms of bin Salman, while also using the "full gangster" tagline.

Retired General John Abizaid, Trump's nominee for ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended Washington's relationship with the Gulf kingdom, even as lawmakers accused it of a litany of misdeeds.

Senators at Abizaid's confirmation hearing included Trump's fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats. They condemned Saudi conduct in the war in Yemen, its use of heavy-handed diplomacy and alleged rights abuses, including Khashoggi's murder.

While Abizaid on Wednesday called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi - a US resident at the time of his killing - and support for human rights, he repeatedly stressed the strategic importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

"In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia," Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound."

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, who led the US Central Command during the Iraq war, is expected to easily win Senate confirmation.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the US has not had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia since Trump became president in January 2017.

US role in Yemen war

The US-Saudi relationship has come under increased scrutiny in recent months.

The US House of Representatives recently passed a resolution that would end US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, an important rebuke of Riyadh and Trump's continued support of the country's war effort.

The bill, which still needs to be brought for a vote in the Senate, invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which prohibits the involvement in a foreign conflict without congressional authorisation.

Trump has vowed to veto the legislation, which would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to override.

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Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that US support should continue.

"Doing so bolsters the self-defence capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians," Abizaid said.

A confirmation hearing was also held on Wednesday for Matthew Tueller, the current US ambassador to Yemen and Trump's nominee for ambassador to Iraq.

Tueller has also defended US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which launched its offensive in 2015 to root out the country's Houthi rebels and restore President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power.

The ongoing conflict has caused thousands of deaths and led to widespread malnutrition and disease.

Focus on Khashoggi murder

US lawmakers zeroed in on Khashoggi's murder during the Senate hearings on Wednesday.

After making numerous contradictory statements about Khashoggi's fate, Riyadh finally said late last year that he had been killed and his body dismembered when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.

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Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for the killing and Riyadh has continued to deny the crown prince ordered the murder.

Still, the CIA concluded with high confidence that the crown prince is responsible for the journalist's killing.

"Saudi Arabia has engaged in acts that are simply not acceptable," Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee chairman, said on Wednesday.

Risch has held two classified briefings in the past two weeks for the panel to discuss Saudi Arabia, he said.

Senator Bob Menendez, the committee's highest ranking Democrat, acknowledged the strategic importance of Saudi ties, but said the US "cannot let these interests blind us to our values or to our long term interests in stability".