Michael Ratney doesn’t know yet if he has reached the “pinnacle” of his career. But the 1979 Bedford High School graduate says, “It definitely feels like it.”
Ratney is completing his first year as the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“This is an amazing job, an amazing opportunity,” he said in a videoconference interview last week. “A lot of interesting things are happening, and the society is changing in profound ways. For me to be at the center of those sorts of developments is a great experience.”
The assignment is Ratney’s most prestigious in a foreign service career spanning more than 30 years, many of them spent in the Middle East.
“This is one of those jobs that is all-encompassing, energizing, and fascinating,” he said.
“You can be a foreign service officer in dozens of different jobs at different levels,” he continued.
“To be an ambassador is an honor. About a third of ambassadors are political appointees, and two-thirds are foreign service personnel with long years of experience working overseas.”
Following “a long and complicated vetting process,” Ratney was nominated by President Joe Biden, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and officially began his duties on March 21, 2023.
One commentator pointed out that the BHS graduate is the first career diplomat to serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia for some 30 years.
More than 40 years ago, Ratney was a communications major at Boston University, first considering journalism and, after graduation, getting involved in advertising.
“I was at a point where I did what I wanted to do – and then I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted a larger perspective,” he recounted.
He said after expanding his reading about the international scene, “I decided to make a fundamental shift and go into foreign affairs.”
He enrolled at The George Washington University, “where you’re surrounded by people who work in these fields. The campus is contiguous to the State Department. He earned a master’s degree and passed the foreign-service exam, and began a series of foreign and domestic assignments of ascending responsibilities.
His wife, Karen Sasahara, also is a career diplomat. She is the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait.
As ambassador, Ratney oversees not only the embassy in Riyadh, but also consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran. There are more than 900 employees in the network, about a third of whom are Americans and the remainder are locally-employed staff from 15 countries. Several federal agencies also have offices in the kingdom.
“My role is leading that team, and the relationship between the United States and Saudis in 100 different ways” Ratney said, adding, “I have a lot of great help.”
“No two days are alike, and this is why the job is so fascinating,” he said.
He described the political relationship between the two countries as “extremely complicated,” featuring “partnerships in many ways.” He said he speaks with high-ranking officials daily “about developments in this part of the world.”
Ratney also engages in “commercial diplomacy. American companies have been working quite successfully in Saudi Arabia for decades,” he pointed out. Meanwhile, “Saudis are diversifying their economy, looking forward to the day when oil is no longer the sole source of their wealth.” So, there are opportunities in manufacturing, technology, and innovation.
“We advise American companies, coach them, connect them with partners, try to resolve regulatory issues,” he explained.
Ratney added, “The whole team spends a lot of time looking after Americans here. There are 70,000 to 80,000 American citizens in every possible field. We have a responsibility to stay in touch with them and answer their concerns.”
The ambassador said “another big piece is the public relationship. Saudis have been going to universities in the U.S. for years,” he said, often with “a lack of understanding. We have a great opportunity to build personal relationships, facilitate travel for students going to the U.S.”
He said he visits universities to talk about educational exchange.
Ratney’s resume includes posts in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Syria, and Tunisia. As U.S. consul general in Jerusalem from 2012 to 2015, he was the point person for U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority.
“The State Department sent me to an Arabic program,” he said, and now “one of the major tools I have to communicate and build relationships is Arabic.”
“Among educated Saudis, English is understood,” he said. But “there’s this idea that everybody speaks English. I get out of the cities as much as I can and try to talk to people in all walks of life. The ability to communicate in Arabic is a great resource for me, much better than working with an interpreter.”
He has never visited Mecca – it’s off-limits to non-Muslims.
“Although the country has relaxed a lot of social restrictions that were based on religion, that’s not one of them,” he said. “The leadership here sees itself as the guardian of the two holiest places (Mecca and Medina) for hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world.”
Ratney was acting deputy director of the U.S. Department of State’s training center, the Foreign Service Institute, where he had also been dean of the School of Language Studies. He also has served as deputy assistant secretary for international media, overseeing a network of worldwide State Department media hubs; spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He has received six State Department Senior Foreign Service Performance awards and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award.
Ratney said his parents, Ronald and Tanya, were his most important early influences.
“They impressed on me that I need to follow my heart. They told me I should do what I feel is satisfying and makes me happy. And they also impressed on me fundamental respect for other people and aversion to disrespect for people. That was unthinkable for them. And I grew up absorbing those values.”
Ratney encouraged students to investigate foreign service as a career option.
“I have had a series of amazing assignments,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for people that are drawn to public service, people who are interested in engaging with the world, people who love experiencing foreign culture and foreign languages and representing our society and culture. As a career, I couldn’t imagine a better choice.”