US Senate confirms John Rakolta as new ambassador to UAE

Post has been vacant since departure of Barbara Leaf in 2018

Tonya Allen, left, president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation, and John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge speak on Detroit's education struggles at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Wednesday, May 27, 2015 on Mackinac Island, Mich. Prominent Detroit-area business and community leaders say the Republican-led Legislature has no excuse to ignore Detroit Public School's debt because the state ultimately is constitutionally responsible for it.  (Tanya Moutzalias/The Ann Arbor News via AP) LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT

The US Senate has confirmed John Rakolta as the new US ambassador to the UAE after a majority vote in favour of his nomination from Republicans and Democrats.

Mr Rakolta was confirmed by 63 senators supporting his nomination, with 30 opposing it.

He was nominated for the position in March last year but the process was stalled because of disagreements between the Trump administration and the Democrats in Congress.

At a vote on Monday, politicians agreed by 55-27 with 18 abstentions to hold another debate on Tuesday in a bid to have Mr Rakolta’s appointment confirmed.

The post as been vacant for 18 months since Barbara Leaf left in 2018.

The son of Romanian immigrants, Mr Rakolta, 71, was born and raised in Detroit. Unlike many of his predecessors he comes from a business background.

He served as chairman and chief executive of the 100-year-old construction company Walbridge Aldinger since 1980.

Mr Rakolta took credit in his testimony to Congress in developing Walbridge Aldinger “from a $40 million regional company into a $1.6 billion international enterprise of nearly 2,000 employees”.

He will be the first political appointment to the position of UAE ambassador, a post usually reserved for career diplomats.

In his testimony in June, he said the relationship between the UAE and US was “critical to our national security interests and is a moderating and stabilising force in one of the world’s most volatile regions”.

Mr Rakolta told Congress that supporting a political solution in Yemen and countering Iranian threats in the Gulf would take priority in his job.

“The president has been clear that Iran is responsible for the May 12 attacks on four commercial vessels off the coast of Fujairah, and the June 13 attacks on two vessels in the Gulf of Oman,” he said.

The UAE has not accused Iran directly of carrying the attacks but the US did.

“The Iranian regime poses a major threat to freedom of navigation and maritime security," Mr Rakolta said.

"I will work to support the administration’s efforts to keep the Strait of Hormuz open."

He is also expected to focus on the growing trade between the two countries, which totalled $24.6bn in 2018.

Mr Rakolta is well connected within the Republican Party establishment, with donations from his family of more than $260,000 to the Trump Victory Fund.

He had served as finance chairman for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

Marcelle Wahba, president emeritus of the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington and a former US ambassador to the UAE, told The National recently that appointing a US ambassador was critical for US-UAE relations.

“The US-UAE bilateral relationship is, and has been, very strong for decades," Ms Wahba said.

"Since 9/11, I believe it is the most important relationship for the US in the Gulf region encompassing robust commercial trade, security and intelligence ties.

“Having an ambassador in place after a nearly two-year hiatus is very important at any time, but more so today given current tensions in the region."