US Senate committee confirms Abizaid as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

New ambassador is a decorated commander who fought in six wars and led Central Command before retiring in 2007

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 24, 2003 US General John Abizaid, Commander, US Central Command testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  President Donald Trump on November 13, 2018, tapped John Abizaid, a top US general from the Iraq war who has studied the Middle East for years, as ambassador to Saudi Arabia amid growing friction between the longstanding allies. Abizaid is a fluent Arabic speaker of Lebanese Christian descent who headed US Central Command -- which covers the Middle East -- in the most intense period of the Iraq war from shortly after the US invasion in 2003 through 2007.
 / AFP / Tim SLOAN
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The US Senate foreign relations committee on Wednesday confirmed that retired general John Abizaid will be the first American ambassador to Saudi Arabia in more than two years.

The committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to confirm Mr Abizaid’s nomination, almost a month after holding a hearing to debate it.

The new ambassador will be the first for Washington in Riyadh since President Donald Trump took office. Mr Abizaid was nominated to the position in November.

The US administration took two years to nominate an ambassador as senior advisers, including Mr Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, held discussions with Saudi Arabia.

But since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took his position last year, he has made it a priority to fill diplomatic vacancies.

In his hearing, Mr Abizaid touched on the divides between Congress and the administration on Saudi Arabia when it comes to issues like the death of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi and the situation in Yemen.

“These short-term problems have to be solved now. And it requires forceful discussions on behalf of the US with the government of Saudi Arabia. I am prepared to have those discussions should you confirm me,” Mr Abizaid told Congress. “In the long run we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia. It is in our interest to make sure that the relationship is sound."

Mr Abizaid is a decorated military commander who fought in six wars and led Central Command before retiring in 2007.

He is of Lebanese-American descent and speaks Arabic. He is a known figure in the Gulf region having fought in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his 34 years of military experience fighting insurgency and guerrilla wars across Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Abizaid was renowned for being able to thrive in chaos.

He is also known for being blunt but warm in his conversations.

James B Smith, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2013, described Mr Abizaid as “an exceptional choice.”

"He is talented beyond description with a wealth of knowledge of the region," Mr Smith told The National.

This knowledge, his fluency in Arabic and superior military record earned Mr Abizaid a formidable reputation.

He also wrote a paper on Saudi defence concepts while at Harvard in 1981 studying Middle Eastern Studies.

Mr Smith described his challenges as addressing "a fractured GCC over Qatar" and the US role in Yemen. He also touched on the "changing US-Saudi relationship as the byproduct of this [Donald Trump] administration's transactional approach to foreign policy".

Washington and Riyadh have finalised a THAAD ballistic missile defence deal. The US energy department is also discussing nuclear power co-operation with Saudi Arabia, and is seeking Riyadh's help in launching the Middle East Strategic Alliance, also called the Arab Nato.

Saudi Arabia will also be sending a new ambassador to the US. Last February, Riyadh announced the appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar as its diplomatic representative to the US – the kingdom's first female ambassador.

Among other names that the Senate foreign relations committee confirmed on Wednesday was the former envoy to Yemen, Matthew Tueller, as the new US ambassador to Iraq.

The full Senate is expected to vote this week for final confirmation.