Saudi Princess Reema’s appointment as US envoy is significant

Many of those in Washington familiar with the inner workings of Saudi Arabia say Princess Reema is a good choice in terms of a new image for the kingdom.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud speaks during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the capital Riyadh on October 24, 2018. (AFP)
Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud speaks during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the capital Riyadh on October 24, 2018. (AFP)

The appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States caught many in Washington off guard. The current ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, had been appointed relatively recently, in 2017.

Prince Khalid, younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, will now be deputy minister of defence.

Princess Reema’s appointment is the latest sign of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to rehabilitate its image in the United States after the controversy over the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi last October but it would be a mistake to view the princess’s appointment as no more than an attempt at rehabilitation.

She will be the first Saudi woman to serve as an ambassador and, in many ways, she is uniquely qualified for the job.

Her father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was ambassador to the United States from 1983-2005. Prince Bandar was rumoured to be so close to the Bush family he was sometimes called “Bandar Bush.”

Princess Reema spent many of her early years in Washington. Like her father, she was educated in the United States, receiving a degree in museum studies from George Washington University.

More recently, she worked for the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia and was the chief executive officer of Alpha International, a luxury retail company. Her biography on the website of the Saudi news agency says she has advocated a greater role for women in Saudi sports and for breast cancer awareness.

She has also been a promoter of Crown Prince Mohammed’s Saudi Vision 2030 reform programme. Yet there have been times she expressed hesitance about the changes underway.

For instance, she was asked by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last year about the mixed signals the Saudi crown prince was sending women — they were now allowed to drive but many activists who had campaigned for this were arrested. Princess Reema seemed to agree this was confusing, though she did not directly comment on Crown Prince Mohammed’s actions.

Many of those in Washington familiar with the inner workings of Saudi Arabia say Princess Reema is a good choice in terms of a new image for the kingdom. However, she may have problems negotiating some of the more complicated issues involving Saudi Arabia and the United States.

“As a poised and articulate royal, Princess Reema will represent a persistent reminder to Washington that the kingdom is changing and her presence is intended to overwhelm the concerns about the country’s leadership in Riyadh,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“But power in the family has become increasingly centralised in a way that weakens her branch of the family and she is not deeply versed in either the security or the financial issues that are the core of the government-to-government relationship. Her effectiveness as ambassador will likely come from her broad public outreach rather than her ability to cut deals on behalf of the government,” Alterman added.

It’s a difficult time for Saudi Arabia and its image in the United States. The killing of Khashoggi was widely reported on by the American media. A report indicating that US intelligence analysts had alleged that Crown Prince Mohammed was somehow involved in Khashoggi’s death undid almost all the good that had come from the crown prince’s visit to the United States early in 2018.

Many members of the US Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, have been very vocal about the need for the United States to take concrete steps against Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death.

However, US President Donald Trump has continued to stand by Crown Prince Mohammed and Saudi Arabia, which Trump views as a reliable ally in the Middle East and a consistent purchaser of US arms.

Alterman noted that Princess Reema’s appointment was a fulfilment of the Saudi strategy to “hunker down” for the next few years while waiting for the current tensions with the United States to pass. There may be some direct engagement between the White House and the Saudi court, he said, but the Saudis seem to have accepted that close cooperation will be difficult for the time being.

“By appointing the first female in the history of their diplomatic corps to be ambassador to Washington, they are seeking to use the time to change Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States,” Alterman said. “While I’d expect Princess Reema to be outgoing and articulate, her principal target will be a public one. She will be a stark contrast to her father, who revelled in being a trusted but often invisible adviser to the highest rungs of the US government.”

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