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Saudi Arabia finally gets a US ambassador after 2-year vacancy

The career diplomat’s confirmation follows China's brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as improving relations between Washington and Riyadh.
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)

The Senate confirmed Michael Ratney on Wednesday to serve as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, almost a year since he was nominated to the position. The confirmation follows improvements in US-Saudi relations, including a significant multibillion dollar Boeing purchase this week. 

Background: Ratney, 62, is a career foreign service officer. He most recently served as acting deputy director of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. 

Ratney speaks Arabic and has extensive experience in the Middle East. His resume includes serving as chargé d’affaires of the US embassy in Jerusalem, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Levant and Israel and Palestinian Affairs, special envoy for Syria, spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Doha. Additional past assignments include Baghdad, Beirut and Casablanca, according to the State Department. 

Why it matters: Ratney heads to Riyadh at an important time in US-Saudi relations, and after a 2-year vacancy in the post.

Tension has dissipated between Washington and Riyadh in recent months. In contrast to when US President Joe Biden took office, pledging to hold the kingdom accountable for the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen, the administration ultimately decided to not sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi and opted for a UN-led process in Yemen.

The Biden administration rebuked Saudi Arabia last November when OPEC+ decided to cut oil production, but backtracked later. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that the administration dropped its retaliation threats over the oil cut and sought greater coordination with Saudi Arabia against Iran. 

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia announced it purchased up to 121 "Dreamliner" planes from the US manufacturer Boeing. The aircraft will be used for the kingdom's newly announced airline, Riyadh Air, and the White House called the deal "historic."

Also on Wednesday, an anonymous US official told Axios that relations with the kingdom are in a "better spot," citing good conversations on Yemen and security coordination. 

Ratney’s confirmation also notably follows Saudi Arabia and Iran agreeing last week to resume relations  in an agreement brokered by China. Saudi Arabia has been getting closer to China for years, especially regarding energy. Last year, Saudi Aramco finalized a deal to build a major petrochemical facility in China. 

Know more: Ratney was nominated by Biden all the way back in April of 2022. Confirmations in the senate have been taking several months in recent years, but Ratney was specifically delayed when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) put a hold on him last September. Wyden announced the hold due to allegations the Saudi government has “systematically helped its citizens flee the United States after being accused of violent crimes,” according to a statement from his office. 

Wyden specifically referenced the Saudi citizen who was accused of striking and killing Oregon teenager Fallon Smart with a speeding vehicle in 2020. Wyden announced he removed the hold last week after “securing new commitments from the State Department to revoke the visas of foreign officials involved in assisting foreign nationals in evading prosecution or fleeing the U.S. justice system,” per another statement. 

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