US President-elect Donald Trump once again surprised the foreign policy and diplomatic establishment with his choice of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Tillerson is no stranger to the Middle East and especially the Gulf. He is one of a long line of American executives who spent years either working in or with the Gulf region in the oil and gas business.
As such, the nominated secretary of state has an intimate knowledge of the region and an extensive web of longstanding relationships, which may be exactly what is needed now for the US-GCC relationship.
But Tillerson’s nomination was received with a barrage of criticism from Congress for another of his longstanding relationships — with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This comes against the backdrop of the CIA assessment that Russia interfered in the US election to help Trump win.
Texas-born Tillerson has no diplomatic experience, and has never held public office or worked in government.
But the nominated secretary of state has led a company with operations in 50 countries around the world. ExxonMobil is number two on the Fortune 500 list of top US companies by revenues, and has been described in New Yorker magazine as functioning as “a corporate state within the American state,” constructing its own foreign, economic and human rights policies.
Tillerson, who is also on the board of trustees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is described as impressive by those who meet him, and he and Trump “hit it off immediately,” according to transition officials.
It seems the president-elect was impressed by Tillerson’s “strength,” and he “told people that Tillerson is the kind of guy that walks in a room and commands respect,” a transition official was quoted by Politico as saying.
Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, who worked before as an advisor to ExxonMobil and interacted with Tillerson, considered his appointment a “positive” development. She said he is someone who dealt with the difficulties we face around the world, and “if you are looking for someone to articulate a strong American foreign policy he is very well positioned to do that.”
But it is Tillerson’s relationship with Moscow, which goes back over 20 years, that is troubling for many Republicans and Democrats alike — and could lead to a very tough confirmation hearing.
Choosing Tillerson directly after the release of the CIA report which accused Russia of being behind the hacking of the Democratic party’s computer networks, boosting Trump’s chances in the election, has raised the most concern. Members of Congress said that it is not only Tillerson’s business dealings with Putin that is worrying them but the personal friendship between the two. Putin awarded Tillerson the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013.
Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said we need to “understand whether he will put US interests ahead of his personal friendship.” And Sen. John McCain has reportedly said Tillerson’s relationship with Putin is “a matter of concern.”
Tillerson spent much of his career working on Russian deals, including a 2011 agreement with the Russians that gave ExxonMobil rights to drill in the Arctic. But when the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea and its meddling in Ukraine, the project was put on hold.
ExxonMobil’s experience with Russia likely led to Tillerson’s strong opposition to the sanctions, which he believes are not effective and hard to implement well and comprehensively.
We do not know if his full position on sanctions on Russia extends to other countries like Iran. But while not much is known yet about Tillerson’s specific views on such issues, his record shows toughness in doing business.
When Venezuela’s late strongman Hugo Chavez nationalized the assets of foreign oil companies, ExxonMobil sued Venezuela and won.
In Iraq, while US policy was supporting Baghdad’s government and its oil policy toward the Kurdistan region, Exxon under Tillerson’s leadership signed a deal to develop oil fields in the autonomous Kurdistan region, infuriating the Iraqi government and defying its law that does not allow direct relations with Erbil on such matters.
Tillerson’s favorite book, he once said in an interview, is Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” The title is a reference to Atlas, a Titan described in the novel as “the giant who holds the world on his shoulders.”
And so, let us hope that, as secretary of state, Tillerson has steady American shoulders to withstand the new challenges in the region and the world — even though, as we know, Trump has been clear about the need for burden sharing.
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.