US President Donald Trump has named a former army general with long experience in the Middle East as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a post that has been vacant since Joseph Westphal left in January 2017.
John Abizaid, a retired four-star army general of Lebanese Christian descent, is prominent for his stint as the longest-chief of US Central Command – of which the Middle East is part – starting shortly after the Iraq war in 2003 all the way through to 2007.
He graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, after which he earned a scholarship to go study Arabic in Jordan, a language he did not speak as a child.
Abizaid also attended Harvard University where he obtained a Master of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies. His thesis focused on Saudi Arabia’s weapons procurement policy.
The 67-year-old’s appointment, which will have to be approved by the Senate, comes at a time when relations between the longstanding allies are being put to the test following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was killed shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Riyadh had consistently denied responsibility for the journalist’s disappearance, maintaining that the Washington Post columnist left its premises. It later admitted to the famed critic’s killing by what it described as a team of “rogue” agents.
Trump has been slow to react to evidence increasingly suggesting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, in large part due to the close ties he forged with the 33-year-old heir apparent, also known as MBS.
He has gone back and forth between demanding full accountability for the journalist’s murder and emphasising the strategic importance of the US-Saudi alliance, going so far as to say any punishment imposed on Riyadh will not include a halt to US arms sales.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been acting as de facto US ambassador to Riyadh by forging a bond with Prince Mohammed. In 2017, Kushner took an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia to pay a visit to MBS.
The two men have since reportedly been exchanging text messages and speaking frequently on the telephone.