Saudi Arabia appoints its first woman ambassador to US

Reema bint Bandar takes role amid lingering strains over Khashoggi murder in Istanbul

Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud: well-versed in Washington’s ways. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP

Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud: well-versed in Washington’s ways. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP

 

The appointment of Reema bint Bandar as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US makes her the first female envoy in the kingdom’s history. She replaces Prince Khaled bin Salman, who becomes deputy defence minister, and is a crafty choice as his successor.

Princess Reema is well-tutored in Washington’s ways. Born in Riyadh in 1975, she grew up and was educated in the US capital, where her father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, served as ambassador from 1983-2005. During that time he developed a close relationship with the Republican Party and the Bush family and was a keen supporter of the US interventions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

The princess graduated from George Washington University with a degree in museum management before returning to Riyadh, where she had a high-profile career in business, advocated for women’s employment in the private and public sectors, and promoted sports.

Her return to Washington is meant to signify a fresh start for the Saudi-US relationship, which has faced strain in Congress since the brutal murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate.

Ordered killing

As the CIA has blamed Crown Prince Mohamed bin Sultan for ordering the killing, his brother prince Khaled’s position has been seen as compromised. He had, reportedly, been in contact with Khashoggi shortly before he travelled to his death in Turkey.

Princess Reema could find it difficult to overcome popular antagonism over the imprisonment and reported torture of Saudi women activists who cam- paigned to end the ban on female driving and demand an end to Saudi male guardianship, which treats women as minors from birth to death.

This forces women to apply to fathers, husbands, brothers and sons to access healthcare and education as well as to work, marry and travel. Guardianship has prompted dozens of Saudi girls and women to flee the restrictive kingdom and seek asylum in the West and in Australia.

Riyadh is also under increasing pressure from Congress to end the war in Yemen, even though the Trump administration has done its utmost to prevent that conflict, the Khashoggi killing and Saudi treatment of women from undermining the close US connection with bin Salman.

Power grab

While this connection, remains strong, King Salman headed the Saudi delegation to the Arab-European summit in Egypt as his son continues to be a controversial figure in Europe.

On the home front, bin Salman seeks to secure support for his succession from powerful relations at a time his grab for power has alienated royals who fear his one-man rule. A former intelligence chief and head of the Saudi national security council as well as US ambassador, Princess Reema’s father Bandar is a scion of the Sudairi branch of the Saudi royal family, to which the king and crown prince belong.

The Sudairis descend from Hasa al-Sudairi, a wife of the dynasty’s founder who had seven sons, including King Salman. He has broken Saudi tradition by ending the practice of consulting senior princes when formulating policy and by keeping the reins of power in the hands of his nuclear family by anointing his favourite son crown prince.

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