Senate advances Rakolta nomination for UAE ambassador

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Senate on Monday evening advanced the nomination of Michigan businessman John Rakolta Jr. to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. 

The 55-27 procedural vote could signal what the final tally on his nomination will be later this week. Michigan U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, voted yes. 

John Rakolta Jr. is chairman and CEO of the Detroit-based Walbridge construction company.

Rakolta, a major Republican fundraiser, for 39 years has led the Detroit-based Walbridge, an international construction and engineering company.

If confirmed, he would be the first political appointee to serve in the Emirates post, which has historically been reserved for career foreign-service officers. 

Rakolta was nominated in March 2018 by President Donald Trump for the position, which has been vacant for 18 months since the retirement of Ambassador Barbara A. Leaf

Rakolta was a top donor to Trump's 2017 inauguration, giving $250,000, and his family gave over $275,000‬ to Trump's 2016 campaign.

Rakolta previously served as finance chairman of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Romney now chairs a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes the UAE. 

Rakolta is related by marriage to Ronna Romney McDaniel, who chairs the Republican National Committee and chaired Michigan’s Republican Party when Trump was elected. Rakolta’s wife and McDaniel's mother are sisters.

The Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-7 in late July to send Rakolta's nomination to the full Senate for consideration following a June hearing.

At the time, Rakolta had the backing of all the Republicans on the panel, as well as Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. 

The UAE is a federation of seven states that has swiftly developed into an economic hub on the Persian Gulf bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia.

The nation hosts three U.S. military bases including Al Dhafra Air Base from which the American military conducts surveillance flights. 

Senators from both parties remarked at Rakolta's hearing about Trump's decision to select a political appointee with no prior diplomatic experience for the UAE, with Murphy saying "it is not insignificant." 

Senators touted the critical importance of the U.S. relationship with the UAE concerning  trade, investment and anti-terrorism initiatives but also raised concerns about its isolation of Qatar, its role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and what Murphy called its "increasingly militaristic" foreign policy.

Asked by Romney whether he'd be at a disadvantage, Rakolta said career ambassadors and political appointees are "quite different." 

"Each brings a different qualifications to the job. I certainly will be at somewhat of a disadvantage on the career side of all of the experiences that they have. But on the other hand, I bring other experiences that I think will be very, very beneficial," Rakolta said.

"I would submit to you that I will be using the embassy staff and the State Department to probably a greater degree — relying on them at least in the initial phases for a lot of advice and guidance."

UAE business ties

Murphy pressed Rakolta on his business interests in the UAE, where Walbridge built Maritime City in Dubai, the largest complex for ship repair on the Indian Ocean, and worked on the "futuristic" Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, according to the company's website. 

Walbridge did a "significant amount of business" in the UAE from 2003-13 but stopped bidding on projects in 2011, Rakolta said.

The project was completed in 2013 and staff and equipment were removed, though Walbridge continues to have pending contractual obligations there, he said. 

"There are contractual obligations and guarantee, both contractually and by law, that require us to give a corporate guarantee on those projects, if you will. The fact that if something were to go wrong, they could come back at us," Rakolta said. 

"That is the only thing. We could have closed down our our (limited-liability company) that was working there, but as a practice for tax purposes, we leave those open until the final guarantees are completed."

Another project that Walbridge had in the Middle East during that time was in Doha, the capital of Qatar, Rakolta said.

"We have absolutely no intentions of going back. In fact, I'll make it a little stronger: We will not be going back to doing business there," Rakolta said. 

"In the region? Will you make that commitment once you leave this post as well?" Murphy asked. 

"Yes, I will. Personally," Rakolta said. 

UAE foreign policy

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the committee's ranking Democrat, urged Rakolta to prioritize "credible reports" of the UAE's role in abuse and torture of Yemeni detainees

Menendez also expressed concern about reports that the UAE has illegally transferred weapons it bought from the United States to terrorist organizations. 

"That is not what an ally does when we are trying to help them with weapons sales," Menendez said. 

Rakolta said he would press the UAE leaders for an open and transparent investigation into both matters. 

"I'm not a hesitant person. I have very strong beliefs and will make both my personal voice and the voice of our nation heard loud and clear as far up as I can possibly make it," Rakolta said. 

In addition to his business, Rakolta is known in Detroit for his advocacy for public schoolchildren, co-chairing a group of business, civic, education and faith leaders that led efforts to rescue Detroit's public school system from financial collapse.

In his role with the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, Rakolta was central to lobbying the GOP-controlled Legislature to relieve the school district of $617 million in debt piled up by a seven-year succession of state-appointed emergency managers.

A third-generation Romanian American, Rakolta received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Marquette University in 1970 and later completed the Smaller Company Management Program at Harvard Business School.  

He joined Walbridge in 1971, became president in 1979 and succeeded his father as chairman and CEO in 1993. 

At his hearing, Rakolta said he has grown the company from a $40 million regional firm into a $1.6 billion multinational corporation with over 2,000 employees.