Who is Michael Ratney, the next US ambassador to Saudi Arabia?

Career diplomat has served throughout the Middle East

Michael Ratney, President Joe Biden's nominee for Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
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For more than 30 years, Michael Ratney has been a steady hand helping to shape US foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.

The career diplomat, who has served throughout the region, is headed to Riyadh as the next US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

“He's a consummate career professional,” said Robert Jordan, who served as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2002 to 2003 under George W Bush.

“He is highly experienced in the Middle East and quite fluent in Arabic, so he's well positioned, I think, to assume this new responsibility.”

Mr Ratney started his career at the State Department in 1990 after graduating with a master's degree from George Washington University.

He has worked in missions in Qatar, Mexico, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco and Barbados. His most recent posting was in Jerusalem, where he served as chargé d’affaires at the US embassy.

“Very good, very strong, very smart,” said Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen under Barack Obama, who now serves as a distinguished senior fellow on diplomacy at the Middle East Institute.

Mr Feierstein worked with Mr Ratney at the State Department between 2014 and 2015.

“He brought a huge amount of background and knowledge and as well as diplomacy to the to the table,” Mr Feierstein told The National.

Before his stint in Jerusalem, Mr Ratney was the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary for the Levant and Israel and Palestinian affairs. From 2015 to 2017, he was the US special envoy to Syria.

He has experience leading large teams, and from 2012 to 2015, he served as the US Consul General in Jerusalem, where he led a team of 600 Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Ratney is married to fellow senior foreign service officer Karen Sasahara, who is President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to Kuwait.

He inherits a role that has not been filled since Mr Biden took office more than two years ago, something that former ambassador Mr Jordan said would make his life more difficult when he finally arrives in Riyadh.

“He's got a very heavy inbox,” Mr Jordan told The National.

“Michael will come in at a time when the Saudis are charting, at least to some degree, a new path of more independence, using their leverage, both in the region and with partnerships around the world and at a time when relations with the US are less than ideal.”

The Biden administration has had a fraught relationship with Riyadh in recent years, highlighted by an awkward meeting between Mr Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last July, where the two leaders famously fist bumped rather performing a customary handshake.

In what may be another sign of the distance between the two countries, Saudi Arabia recently turned to China to help mediate relations with Iran.

Mr Ratney is the first career diplomat to serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia since Charles Freeman in the early 1990s.

For the past three decades, US leaders have hand-picked a series of political appointees to serve in Riyadh but having a career foreign service officer, who speaks the language and has the institutional knowledge that comes from a career working in the region, may be advantageous.

“The time may have come to return to professionals who have the gravitas, the experience and the diplomatic skills to fill the post and certainly there's every reason to believe that Ambassador Ratney will be one of those people,” said Mr Jordan.

Updated: March 16, 2023, 1:23 PM