Riyadh road named in honor of late Saudi poet Prince Badr bin Abdul Mohsen

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DUBAI: Michael Ratney, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has said that a “historic” security agreement currently being negotiated between the two countries has the potential to fundamentally change the landscape in the Middle East for the better.

Speaking on Arab News’ “Frankly Speaking,” Ratney expressed optimism that the agreement would both clarify and cement the decades-long relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which is currently based on verbal agreements.

“We use the word ‘historic’ too often, but it would be a historic agreement and it could fundamentally change the landscape of the Middle East for the better,” he said.
“Political cooperation, security cooperation, economic integration.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said that a deal that would see Saudi Arabia agree to normalise its relations with Israel in exchange for greater integration with the US and recognition of a Palestinian state could be just weeks away.

Despite the mutual enthusiasm for the agreement, Ratney declined to comment on the exact timeline for its completion, warning that there are many uncertainties, particularly Israel’s willingness to keep its part of the bargain.

“I don’t think there is anyone involved in these negotiations who doesn’t want them to be concluded tomorrow,” Ratney told Katie Jensen, host of “Frankly Speaking.”

“But because all of this is part of this agreement and these are extraordinarily complex and detailed discussions, I don’t think I can put a timetable on that.

“There are other elements as well, including a role for the US Senate, and of course the situation in Israel also plays a role.

“As much as we would like to get this done tomorrow, we are going to move as quickly and seriously as we can. And we will get it done as soon as all the pieces fall into place.”

What makes the agreement so significant is that it clearly sets out the parameters of the Saudi-Arabian relationship and protects it from the political whims and idiosyncrasies of future US administrations, bringing a degree of security to the partnership.

“That’s why it’s an agreement that requires ratification by the U.S. Senate,” Ratney said. “Ratification by the U.S. Senate means it’s a formal agreement that doesn’t depend on any particular administration.”

“It would be a permanent agreement, not between an administration or government, but between two countries. And that brings security. It brings security for us. And it would also bring security for the Saudis.”

Commentators have drawn parallels between the proposed Saudi-US agreement and the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Asked whether those assessments were accurate, Ratney said he could not elaborate.

“I’m really reluctant to go into such details,” he said. “These are exactly the things that need to be negotiated at the highest level of our government and at the highest level of the Saudi government.”

However, he said the agreement would include improving security partnership and economic relations while taking steps to meet Saudi Arabia’s demand for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Let’s put it this way: This would be a historic agreement that would enhance the security partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. It would enhance the economic relationship. It would bring Israel and Saudi Arabia essentially into the same region. And it would bring benefits and a path to statehood for the Palestinians.

“So that’s a lot. It’s a complex set of discussions. And I’m really reluctant to get into the details of things, some of which still need to be negotiated.”

The success of the agreement depends to a large extent on Israel’s cooperation. However, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has two powerful far-right ministers, is reluctant to give in on the issue of a Palestinian state and to end the war in Gaza.

Ratney, who previously served as a diplomat in Israel, believed there was much to be gained for the region.

“I would say all the elements we’ve discussed are of extraordinary value. The real value is in putting it all together,” he said.

“All of these elements under discussion, all of the US and Saudi Arabian aspects, and the Israeli and Palestinian aspects, taken together, could fundamentally change the landscape of the Middle East.

“And that’s the lens through which we see it, and it’s certainly the lens through which the U.S. Senate sees it, and they would ultimately vote on ratification.”

However, U.S. lawmakers are hesitant to push Israel for a ceasefire in Gaza. Asked whether Washington’s decisions could radicalize a generation of Arab and Muslim youth and create a Hamas 2.0, Ratney said careful diplomacy is needed to achieve a lasting peace.

“It is impossible for anyone who sees these scenes on a daily basis, and it is certainly impossible for anyone who knows friends and family involved in this conflict, not to be moved by it and not to be motivated to find a solution as soon as possible, to find an end to the violence in Gaza, to find an end to the threats to Israeli security, to find a path to statehood so that Palestinians can ensure that this kind of conflict does not flare up again,” he said.

“The diplomacy involved is extraordinarily complex. We pursue certain areas and take positions that are sometimes unpopular. But they are based on our sense of the fastest and most effective way to achieve those goals.”

Ratney was also challenged by Jensen, who asked him whether the whole world could be wrong about Israel and why the United States seemed unwilling to listen to its closest allies and put more pressure on its ally.

In response, he said, “I think it’s safe to say that both President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken and all of our senior officials have been heavily involved. This has been a major concern of theirs since the violence broke out on October 7th.

“They are constantly in the region. Secretary of State Blinken has been here six times since October 7, as has our national security adviser. In almost every case, this includes visits to Israel, where they sometimes have very difficult and very direct discussions.

“We have an important relationship with Israel, we have an important partnership with Israel, and we are using that relationship and partnership to find a humane conclusion to this conflict.”

After the Biden administration took office in 2020, Saudi Arabia and the United States had disagreements on regional issues. However, after President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom in 2022, the differences gave way to a greater convergence of views.

Ratney, who has been ambassador to Saudi Arabia for a year, said bilateral relations were already better when he took office and there was potential for an even stronger bond.

“When I came here a little over a year ago, I felt that the relationship was good. And I believe that is the case. And I think it has gotten better and better over the last year as our partnership has become more diverse and we have delved into negotiations on a possible historic agreement between our countries.

“So as I look one, two or three years into the future, I want to see this evolution and the speed of this diversification and partnership continue.”

Ratney said he was impressed by the speed and scale of change in the kingdom in recent years, particularly the empowerment of women – and least of all the lifting of the ban on women driving.

“Women behind the wheel is really just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The big change, the big innovation – and it has fundamentally changed the face of this country – is the fact that women are involved in every aspect of the economy, every aspect of society.”

“And I can do that quite simply by going to meetings with high-level government officials and seeing that women participate equally in these discussions.

“And they are not there as symbols. They are highly educated, in many cases as well or better educated than their male counterparts, often at US universities. And that is extraordinary to see.”

Regarding areas of cooperation and opportunities between the United States and Saudi Arabia, Ratney said there is now scope for trade and exchange in the high-tech and creative sectors.

“We are working hard with U.S. companies that are intrigued by this market to export there, to partner with Saudi Arabia and to invest here. We see this not only in areas like healthcare, but also in infrastructure,” he said.

“Of course, this country is investing heavily in infrastructure and US companies are creating real added value there. In the high-tech sector, Saudi Arabia has the ambition to become a center for innovation and technological development.

“This is a US brand in many ways, and that’s why US companies, be it Amazon, Google or others, are here, they’re interested, they’re involved and they’re becoming partners with the Saudis in this effort.

“There used to be no major film industry here. Now we see that U.S. film and television companies are interested in partnering with the emerging Saudi film industry. That, too, is extraordinary. So we see opportunities for the U.S. across the economy.”

Some commentators have suggested that the US has lost business to China in the race for contracts in the kingdom, particularly in the technology and communications sectors.

“Are there competitors: European, Chinese? Sure,” Ratney said. “But I have to say, where China may bring low prices to the table, the U.S. brings value, innovation and partnership in a way that very few competitors can match.”
Another area of ​​future cooperation is the space sector.

“If you listen to the Saudi leadership talk about it, I think the space industry, the commercial space industry, is becoming an increasingly normal part of any large, healthy economy,” Ratney said.

“It was the US company Axiom Space that brought two Saudi astronauts to the International Space Station last year – an Air Force pilot and a microbiologist. The Saudis obviously have further ambitions there and we want to be part of that.”

He added: “Space, particularly commercial space, is the future, and it is an extraordinarily lucrative and extraordinarily ambitious future.”

Although he has only been in office as U.S. ambassador to the kingdom for a year, Ratney is already looking ahead to the legacy he wants to leave behind.

“As Saudi Arabia’s ambitions grow, whether it’s expanding and reforming the education sector, building a larger media sector, space exploration, which we’ve talked about, building a high-tech industry, a whole range of areas where the United States and Saudi Arabia are natural partners, I want everyone to know about it in a few years and for Saudi Arabia to realize its ambitions and for the United States to be seen as its most important partner in that.”

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