Finley: Rakolta off to U.A.E. for tough, new job

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

When John Rakolta Jr. began talking with the Trump administration about where he might fit in, he had one request:

Whatever job he got, he wanted it to be tough. The Detroit builder wasn't interested in a ceremonial post. So when the White House asked him to consider an ambassadorship, he hoped it would be to a country with real diplomatic challenges. No tea in the afternoon, please.

Wish granted.

After a confirmation process delayed for more than a year by the Democratic resistance movement, Rakolta is off to the United Arab Emirates, a country vital to U.S. interests and one at the center of a roiling region.

Typically, the U.A.E. ambassadorship, because of the sensitivity of the relationship, would go to a veteran career diplomat. Rakolta, a Republican fundraiser, is a political appointee.   

Is he ready?

"The word fully prepared is further than I would say I am," says Rakolta, until recently chairman of the Walbridge construction firm. "There's a large staff at the embassy, close to 1,000, and they bring a lot of expertise. But I feel I’ve been preparing my whole life. I've done a lot of international business and have been in some tough situations. I adapt well. I'm a good listener, and try to keep an open mind."

U.A.E. occupies a strategic position in the Middle East. It has been a staunch U.S. ally, Rakolta notes, involved in nearly every U.S. initiative in the region. President Donald Trump recently announced American troops would be deployed to both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia as part of the mission to keep Iran in check.

It's enormous oil resources make it one of the richest nations on Earth, but Rakolta says it recognizes that oil wealth is finite, and it must diversify its economy. To do so, it's looking for partnerships abroad.

Suitors are coming from all quarters, including some the United States finds worrisome. On the day of my interview with Rakolta, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in U.A.E. on a state visit, part of Russia's drive to expand its influence in the Middle East.

Part of Rakolta's job will be to counter Putin's courtship.

"Competition is good," Rakolta says. "We need to continue to show U.A.E., and they us, how strong our relationship is. The fact that they’re having talks with other nations only increases the opportunity to deploy diplomacy instead of conflict and violence."

Rakolta says he has a 3P mission — protecting the 75,000 U.S. citizens living and working in U.A.E, promoting economic and cultural ties between the two countries, and advocating for peace.

After his confirmation, Rakolta,73, had to step down from both the leadership of the company once headed by his father and the many community initiatives he's been a part of, including his longtime work to improve race relations and education in Detroit.

But he says his tenure in the U.A.E. should benefit his hometown.

"One of my objectives is to broaden the connection between our state and city and U.A.E.," he says. "I hope to broaden and learn and come home better prepared to serve my community."

Catch Nolan Finley on One Detroit at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.