Middle East

Biden’s choice of US ambassador to Saudi Arabia will offend Kingdom, former official says

The Biden administration’s choice for its new ambassador to Saudi Arabia is set to offend and anger the Kingdom, a former US official has revealed.

US President Joe Biden, this week, nominated Michael Ratney as the new ambassador to Riyadh, a career diplomat who has previously served as the Special Envoy for Syria and the Consul General in Jerusalem.

That choice could offend Saudi Arabia, however, as Ratney differs from the usual pick of ambassadors from the US that it is accustomed to. According to David Schenker, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2019 to 2021, the Kingdom prefers to receive those with deep military ties.

Examples of such figures have included Joseph Westphal, the former Under-Secretary of the US Army, as well as James Smith, who has held executive positions with the American arms manufacturer, Raytheon.

“He’s a very capable diplomat, he served in positions of importance, requited himself well, and is held in high regard,” Schenker told the news site Business Insider. “But we’ve seen a lot of stresses in the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and this is not going to help.”

The reason for the Saudi preference for an ambassador with military ties is reportedly due to the fact that Washington has, for decades, been the security guarantor for Riyadh, with millions sold in arms to the Kingdom every year and a number of US military bases holding thousands of troops being stationed in the Gulf country.

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Furthermore, Saudi ambassadors to the US have traditionally been, and continue to be, leading figures of importance and often members of the Royal family, such as Khalid bin Salman and, currently, Princess Reema bint Bandar – the former being the brother of and latter being the cousin of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

That relationship and understanding, according to Schenker, has formed the bedrock of US-Saudi relations, and the pick of a career diplomat like Ratney is seen as a diplomatic demotion to the Saudis.

“The Saudi ambassador to Washington is a princess. They will see this as a downgrade in the relationship,” Schenker insisted. “They will understand this in that context.”

The Biden administration’s choice of Ratney – whose nomination is still pending before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – comes at a time when relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained and, as some put it, at breaking point.

Deterioration in those relations is due to a myriad of factors, including the Biden administration’s more critical stance of the Saudi war in Yemen and human rights abuses than the administration of former President, Donald Trump.

The Saudis also seemingly have less respect for Biden, seeing him as being weak in the face of aggression by Iran and its proxy groups in the region, as well as generally viewing him as a senile elderly man who is unfit to hold his position. That was seen in the recent mocking of Biden and his Vice President, Kamala Harris, in a Saudi television comedy sketch.

That dismissal of Biden reportedly resulted in the Kingdom refusing to receive his calls and snubbing his administration’s plea to pump more oil in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential energy crisis it is leading to.

It was also revealed this month that Crown Prince MBS shouted at Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a meeting last year after the subject of the assassinated Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was brought up.

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