By Tim Daiss
The Senate has confirmed President Trump’s nominee to be the new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Though Trump has been in office for more than two years, it will be the first ambassador of his administration to this key middle eastern ally. The Senate approved retired Gen. John Abizaid by a 92-7 vote on Wednesday. The vote comes almost five months after Trump first announced his intention to nominate Abizaid, a 68-year-old retired four-star Army general, who led U.S. Central Command during the contentious Iraq war.
There are several takeaways from Abizaid’s confirmation. First, he fills a 27 month gap of the U.S. not having an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a period that saw the best bi-lateral relations between Washington and Riyadh in years, likely since the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush during the first Gulf War when the U.S. helped protect the Kingdom against the possible Iraqi invasion.
Moreover, unlike several of his predecessors, Trump has not pushed Riyadh over allegations of human rights abuses. In this light, the president seems to have a basic twin agenda with Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s Saudi agenda
First, Trump sees Saudi Arabia as an integral part of his plan to offset Iranian hegemony pursuits in the Middle East. Second, and perhaps even more difficult to pull off, he wants to be able to influence Saudi oil production to help keep oil prices down and keep a lid on domestic gasoline prices. On the first count, Trump has largely been successful. A combined U.S.-Saudi front is serving as a check against Tehran’s ambitions in the region, while it was reportedly Saudi Arabia that was instrumental in persuading Trump to reimpose fresh sanctions against Iran’s energy sector.
On the second count, the president has had mixed results. Last fall, he was successful in convincing Riyadh, mostly via Twitter comments, to increase oil production in an effort to put downward pressure on global oil prices. In fact, at the time there was concern that the Saudis were nearing the limits of their spare production capacity as it sought to appease Trump. However, the president committed a vital mistake. He offered numerous waivers for Iranian oil without consulting Riyadh. It was a move that caught Saudi Arabia off-guard and created an element of distrust between this firebrand president and Riyadh. Since his initial waivers for Iranian oil customers last year, Trump’s calls and Tweets for the Saudis and OPEC to ramp up production as oil prices hit five-month highs have largely fallen on deaf ears.
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Enter the confirmation of Abizaid as the new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. During his Senate hearings, while being peppered with questions about how the U.S. should deal with Saudi Arabia as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over their purported involvement in the killing of Saudi dissident journalist, U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi, the retired general was a voice for moderation and calm.
He defended the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as strategically important during the hearings, but also called for accountability over Khashoggi’s murder, and also said he supported human rights. He added in comments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia… It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”
Going forward, Abizaid’s appreciation of Washington’s 70-plus year integral, albeit complicated relations with Riyadh will not only help stay the hand of U.S. lawmakers still upset over Khashoggi’s killing who are calling for stiffer sanctions against the Kingdom, he will also help set the Trump administration’s dialogue with the Kingdom back on even keel, hopefully repairing the confidence lost when the president granted his first set of Iranian oil waivers without first consulting Riyadh. If Abizaid can pull this off, Trump will have more success in the future when he calls for Saudi Arabia to help bring down global oil prices by kicking up production. This is of vital interest to Trump as the 2020 election cycle kicks in with higher gasoline prices across the country.