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Washington — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved the nomination of Michigan businessman John Rakolta Jr. to be U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. 

With the 63-30 vote, Rakolta is set to become the first political appointee to serve in the post, which has traditionally been filled by career foreign-service officers. 

Michigan U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters voted in favor of Rakolta's selection, along with nine other Democratic senators plus Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine.

Rakolta is CEO and chairman of the Detroit-based Walbridge, an international construction and engineering company that has done major projects in the UAE.

At his confirmation hearing this summer, he pledged not to do any more business in the Middle East going forward. "We will not be going back to doing business there," he said. 

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Michigan native, on Tuesday praised Rakolta's business success but also his service to the Detroit community, which includes co-chairing a coalition of business, civic, education and faith leaders addressed the city's public school system ills.

Rakolta served as finance chairman of Romney’s two presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. 

"Of course, my friends on the other side of the aisle are dutiful in their examination of any possible flaw," said Romney, who has known Rakolta personally for 30 years.

"I'm convinced that the concerns they may have raised are not well-founded, and he is in fact entirely qualified and appropriately nominated to this important position."

President Donald Trump nominated Rakolta in March 2018 for the position, which has been vacant for 18 months. 

Rakolta was a top donor to Trump's 2017 inauguration, giving $250,000. His family members contributed over $275,000‬ to Trump's 2016 campaign funds.

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

The UAE is a major trading partner with the United States and hosts three American military bases including Al Dhafra Air Base from which the American military conducts surveillance flights. 

The Senate has not taken up two other Michigan nominees to serve as ambassadors, including the pick of Suburban Collection Chairman and CEO David T. Fischer for Morocco — whose selection has been pending since December 2017. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April approved the nomination of Joe Cella to serve as ambassador to Fiji and four other Pacific island nations, but Cella's nomination has not been taken up by the full Senate. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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