Trump moves to fill diplomatic void in MENA

The nominations would fill several longstanding vacancies, including the ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia, which has been open since Trump took office two years ago.

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump has nominated ambassadors to five countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The group includes an automobile dealer who pledged to press Morocco on promoting free speech and combating human trafficking.

The nominations would fill several longstanding vacancies, including the ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia, which has been open since Trump took office two years ago. Trump nominated John Abizaid, a former US Army general who oversaw the US occupation of Iraq and military operations across the Middle East, for the position.

Other nominees include a veteran diplomat to be the ambassador to Iraq, a former member of the US House of Representatives to be ambassador to Qatar and a businessman to be ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Veteran diplomat Donald Blome became ambassador to Tunisia on January 2.

The nominations, if confirmed by the US Senate, would fill some of the United States’ 68 ambassadorial vacancies but positions in key countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Libya, remain vacant. Democratic Party members have accused Trump of moving slowly to fill ambassadorial vacancies and the Trump administration blames Democrats for holding up his nominations.

The nomination of David Fischer, who owns one of the largest car dealerships in the United States, to be ambassador to Morocco is considered one of the most controversial picks as is construction company owner John Rakolta’s as Trump’s choice to ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Both donated large amounts of money to Trump’s political organisations but neither has diplomatic experience.

US presidents commonly reward political donors with ambassadorships to smaller, friendly Western countries. Veteran diplomats usually serve in countries with which the United States has tense relations or which are considered less hospitable.

Rakolta would be the first political appointee to the UAE since the United States established diplomatic relations with the newly independent country in 1972. Rakolta’s international construction business, Walbridge Aldinger, has done industrial projects in the UAE. He gave $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee.

About 5,000 US troops along with US fighter jets are based in the United Arab Emirates, a key defensive ally of the United States. The US Navy uses Dubai’s Jebel Ali as a foreign port of call.

Trump nominated Rakolta last March but the Senate never acted on his nomination, forcing it to be resubmitted this month when a new Congress convened. Trump nominated Fischer in November 2017 to be ambassador to Morocco. The Senate had a hearing on Fischer’s nomination but never voted on him as questions arose about lawsuits against his car dealership.

At the hearing in August, senators pressed Fischer on whether he would “stand up for principles of justice, democracy, equality and free speech” in Morocco and would “encourage the Moroccan government to better address both human trafficking and other human rights violations.”

“Trafficking is and has been an issue in Morocco,” Fischer replied. “The government does not fully meet, at this time, the minimum standards for elimination of trafficking but it is my belief, from what I have seen, that they are trying to make significant efforts to do so.”

Fischer said he would “urge the Moroccan government to increase its efforts to investigate and prosecute potential trafficking crimes” and would push the government to recognise human rights.

The Senate was expected to easily confirm veteran diplomat Matthew Tueller as ambassador to Iraq. Tueller, the current US ambassador to Yemen, has held diplomatic positions in Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The Senate also was likely to confirm Scott Taylor, a former member of the US House of Representatives who served in the US Navy, as ambassador to Qatar and Abizaid to Saudi Arabia.

Thomas Frank is a correspondent in Washington.

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