Nominee for US ambassador to Saudi Arabia vows to strengthen kingdom's military defences

Michael Ratney says Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen launched more than 400 cross-border attacks last year

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President Joe Biden's pick for US ambassador to Saudi Arabia said on Thursday that he would work to strengthen the kingdom's military defences to deter cross-border attacks from Iran-backed Houthis.

Career diplomat Michael Ratney's likely confirmation to the post comes weeks before Mr Biden is due to travel to Riyadh to meet King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At his confirmation hearing, Mr Ratney said Yemen's Houthi rebels have launched more than 400 cross-border attacks over the past year on infrastructure, schools, mosques and workplaces.

“If confirmed, I will work to strengthen Saudi defences through security co-operation and training, demonstrating the durable American commitment to our partners and allies and to our values,” Mr Ratney told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He went on to say that Iran poses a “significant threat” to US and Saudi interests, as well as those of other regional allies and partners.

“We must work with our Saudi partners to counter Iranian threats to global energy flows, regional stability and the lives of our fellow US citizens in the region,” Mr Ratney said.

Mr Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia comes at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Riyadh.

During his campaign, Mr Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” over human rights concerns and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but the rise in oil prices due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced a recalibration of the relationship.

The US president is expected to ask Saudi Arabia to produce more oil to help offset soaring petrol prices that have angered consumers and made the future of the Democrats' already precarious control of Congress even more uncertain.

In an apparent nod to current realities, Mr Ratney called the bilateral relationship “complex and multifaceted”.

He called Khashoggi's murder “a heinous act” and said he would work to keep human rights in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere a “pillar” of US foreign policy.

Updated: June 17, 2022, 8:48 AM