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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

John Abizaid, 'the mad Arab', could be Washington's best bet for better Saudi ties 

If his nomination is confirmed, the former commander of Centcom will be America’s first ambassador to Riyadh since 2016

U.S. General John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, sits aboard his helicopter about to leave Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Reuters
U.S. General John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, sits aboard his helicopter about to leave Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Reuters

The nomination of retired General John Abizaid to be the 31st US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been received with a sense of optimism in Washington as an overdue step by the Trump administration to revive US influence and restore diplomacy with Riyadh.

If his nomination is confirmed, General Abizaid would be the first US envoy in Riyadh since 2016.

His attributes and extensive experience in the region are generating anticipation among US officials, who believe he may excel in his new post.

Mr Abizaid, who has fought two Gulf wars, taught at an Omani university, and wrote a thesis on Saudi Arabia at Harvard, will be a political force to reckon with in the Trump administration. The general, who hails from Lebanese descent, is fluent in Arabic and has leveraged his language skills both in war and peacemaking in the Middle East.

James B Smith, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2009-2013), described General 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 General Abizaid the nickname "the mad Arab” while a cadet at West Point. During his 34 years of military experience fighting insurgency and guerrilla wars across Afghanistan and Iraq, General Abizaid was known to thrive in chaos.

Coming into a position that has been vacant since 2014 and in the midst of fragile Saudi-US relations over the war in Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the retired General may feel right at home in taking on another tough Middle East assignment.

Mr Smith described his challenges as addressing “a fractured GCC over Qatar, the US role in Yemen, a Saudi transformation beset with challenges because of the Khashoggi murder as a part of a crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom and a changing US-Saudi relationship as the byproduct of this administration’s transactional approach to foreign policy.”

Mr Abizaid is known among those who worked with him for standing his ground and protecting the bureaucratic hierarchy in the US military and government.

“He is unlikely to tolerate [a Jared] Kushner backchannel,” wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East analyst on Twitter.

Mr Kushner, Mr Trump’s adviser and son in law, used the US diplomatic void in Riyadh to manage the relationship and oversee the US President’s visit to Saudi last year.

Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen and now a senior director the Middle East Institute said General Abizaid's nomination will allow for real diplomatic oversight in US-Saudi relations after a two-year vacancy allowed other parties to undermine the traditional policy channels led by the State Department.

"His nomination will bring to the US-Saudi relationship the senior oversight that has been missing for the past two years," he told The National.

Marcelle Wahba, the President of the Arab Gulf States Institute and a former ambassador to the UAE, knew General Abizaid since 2003 during the Iraq war and later when he became Centcom commander and visited Abu Dhabi for military consultations.

“He is an excellent choice to represent the United States in Saudi Arabia,” Ms Wahba told The National. “He knows and understands the region and is held in very high regard throughout the Arab Gulf states.”

She argued that "the mix of his military expertise with intuitive diplomatic skills which I witnessed during his interactions with regional leaders on some very difficult issues during the Iraq war, will help him in the new assignment.”

As far as the challenges are concerned, the former Ambassador said the first will be “to build a relationship with King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” Then it will be about managing “the relationship in the aftermath of the Jamal Khashoggi affair and the ongoing war in Yemen with a new Democratic-led house of representatives.”

General Abizaid's nomination will require confirmation by the Senate, where questions about Yemen, arms sales and the Khashoggi investigation are expected. David Urban, a Trump campaign supporter, was on the shortlist for the position, but Mr Abizaid's military background, at a time the US is putting more emphasis on the conflict in Yemen, has tipped the scales in his favour.