Biden's new pick for US ambassador to Saudi Arabia will be considered an insult by MBS, ex-official says, as US-Saudi relations hit new low

US President Joe BIden (L,) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Joe Biden.Reuters
  • Biden nominated Michael Ratney, a career diplomat, to be US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

  • A former US official said the Saudis usually expect a political appointee with military ties, and could be insulted by this pick.

  • Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia are currently at a new low.

President Joe Biden's pick for US ambassador to Saudi Arabia will likely be considered a disappointment or even an insult to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a former US official told Insider.

Last Friday, Biden nominated Michael Ratney to the post following the departure of Gen. John Abizaid, a former head of US Central Command, from Riyadh last year.

The nomination comes at a low point in US-Saudi relations, with Biden clearly distancing himself from the country and Crown Prince Mohammed — also known as MBS — reportedly trying to punish him back.

David Schenker, who served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department from 2019 to January 2021, told Insider of Ratney: "He's a very capable diplomat, he served in positions of importance, requited himself well, and is held in high regard."

"But we've seen a lot of stresses in the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and this is not going to help."

US Consul General of Jerusalem Michael Ratney speaks at the American consulate in Jerusalem on June 4, 2015 during a reception ahead of the 4th of July American Independence day celebrations. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Ratney, then US Consul General of Jerusalem, seen in Jerusalem on June 4, 2015.AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Historically, most US ambassadors to Saudi Arabia have been political appointees with deep military ties, like Abizaid.

Other former recent ambassadors include Joseph Westphal, the former under secretary of the US Army, and James Smith, a former executive with the Raytheon arms manufacturer.

But Ratney, a widely respected, Arabic-speaking diplomat, is the first foreign-service officer to be in line for the post since Charles Freeman in 1989.

Saudi Arabia may therefore be offended by Ratney's appointment, Schenker said. A core tenet of the two countries' relationship has been the US guarantee of Saudi security: The US maintains a major military base in Riyadh and sells millions of dollars of arms to the Saudis every year. Ratney's selection could indicate to Riyadh that Biden isn't as concerned with Saudi Arabia's security as his predecessors.

Schenker also said that the post of Saudi ambassador to the US is often filled with leading figures, such as Khalid bin Salman, MBS' brother, and Princess Reema bint Bandar, MBS' cousin and the current ambassador. Riyadh would expect the same type of profile in return, Schenker said.

"The Saudi ambassador to Washington is a princess. They will see this as a downgrade in the relationship," he said. "They will understand this in that context."

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - APRIL 28 (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY â MANDATORY CREDIT - "SAUDI ROYAL COUNCIL / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman gives an interview to the official TV channel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 28, 2021. (Photo by Saudi Royal Council/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Crown Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 28, 2021.Saudi Royal Council via Getty Images

Ratney's nomination comes at tense time for the Saudi-US partnership.

The Biden administration has publicly admonished MBS over widespread human-rights abuses and reeled in US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

In turn, MBS has reportedly ignored Biden's phone calls and US requests to boosting oil production, and said he doesn't care what Biden thinks of him.

The Saudis are also irked at the weak US response to attacks from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels on the Arabian Peninsula, as Saudi Arabia expects the US to guarantee its security.

Even so, in the wake of the announcement, policy experts praised Ratney's appointment and his abilities.

"If anyone can navigate the mess that is US-Saudi ties, it's Ratney. He'll at least provide an honest assessment of how (or how not) US- Saudi interests and values align. What Biden does is another matter," tweeted Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ratney is the currently the dean of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute language program. He previously served as the deputy assistant secretary for the Levant and Israel-Palestinian Affairs at the State Department.

Read the original article on Business Insider