Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ended February with an unprecedented announcement, appointing Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud as ambassador to the United States via royal decree. Princess Reema is the first female ambassador from the Kingdom and is an embodiment of the modernization which the West originally hoped the Crown Prince championed.
Princess Reema Bint Bandar al-Saud, speaks in Riyadh, October 24, 2018. Photo: Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
Princess Reema is not your typical princess; this divorced mother of two is a cultural leader who many remember from her appearance at the world economic forum in Davos last year. Princess Reema’s credentials demonstrate that she is a force of her own and represents an attempt at modernization within the country. Her father, Bandar bin Sultan, was a previous ambassador to the U.S. and has led both the Saudi Intelligence Agency and Saudi National Security Council. During her father’s tenure in the United States, Princess Reema graduated from George Washington University and would go on to work in the private, public, and philanthropic sectors within Saudi Arabia. Princess Reema has been a vocal advocate for women’s rights and equality, from hiring practices to sports, all while operating a women’s accessories brand and advocating for breast cancer research–a ‘modern’ women not too unlike our own Ivanka Trump. Given her background and the recent expansion of women’s rights in the country, we may be bearing witness to an honest continuation of the Saudi Arabia’s modernization and liberalization which began when Crown Prince Salman took power in 2017.
Looking back at Davos, at the World Economic Forum, the Princess impressed listeners with her proclamation on the need for a modern Saudi society, claiming:
because it’s necessary for our nation from an economic point of view, and also from the holistic nature of how you want a family to actually function as a family if you’re constantly segregating family members. It just doesn’t work that way…We’re not doing gender equality because the West wants it…We’re doing it because it is right.
Simultaneously, she criticized Western media for a double standard in reporting on Saudi Arabia:
There is a determination not to allow us to create a new narrative. My question is, why? You ask us to change, and then when we exhibit change, you come to us with cynicism.
Claiming that the Saudis must seek this change internally, while warning that such a metamorphoses of their societal fabric will not be rapid, she may be the fresh face needed to improve relations with the West. If we are to believe that this appointment is a step towards the modern ideas that Mohammed bin Salman has continued to support, we may be witnessing a shift in Saudi cultural dynamics with this appointment, albeit slowly.
But, some see the recent proceedings as a ‘red-herring.’ These claims postulate that the Saudi government is using their new appointment as a ploy to distract from the war in Yemen and Jamal Khashoggi’s death. Given that Prince Khalid bin Salman, Mohammed bin Salman’s younger brother, left his post as ambassador following the revelation that he may have been involved in the journalist’s killing; it is entirely possible that this is just an attempt at political ‘rebranding.’ However, such suspicions dissuades real change from occurring, be it Russia wishing to join NATO or Nixon opening China; and in this case could be dissuading a country from modernizing. Considering this, the possibility for progress must not be written off as a ‘token’ selection if we are to promote the changes that we as the West wish to see.
Secretary Pompeo departing Saudi Arabia with a farewell to now former Ambassador to the U.S. Khalid bin Salman, April 29, 2018 Photo: U.S. State Department
Simultaneously Saudi Arabia has hedged its bets by beginning to build bridges with several key Asian countries. As the West received Princess Reema, with a grain of salt, the Crown Prince has undergone a series of meetings with leaders throughout Asia. In an attempt to defuse tensions along the Indian-Pakistani border the prince met with both leaders. In India, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Modi announced plans on investments deals, primarily in the energy sector; while in Pakistan, the Crown Prince received a fighter jet escort and was gifted a gold plated sub-machine gun, going on to ultimately sign a $20 billion investment into the struggling Pakistani economy. As the Crown Prince attempted to calm these adversarial states, he stressed the importance of fighting global terror and pressuring states who sponsor it–a possible jab at Iran. Concluding his Asia tour, the Crown Prince went to China signing a $10 billion dollar refinery deal. Throughout this tour the Crown Prince has both established himself as a force for peace and sown seeds with the East, mostly by helping China stabilize a failing member of the belt and road through ‘dollar diplomacy.’
Gold-plated submachine gun gifted to the Crown Prince by the Pakistani senators. Photo: Senate of Pakistan
The West should not write off this appointment as an attempted distraction from Khashoggi, as the risk of Saudi Arabia pivoting to the East becomes increasingly real. The appointment of a vocal, female cultural figure in Saudi Arabia is not a low cost signal or ploy, it conflicts with the ideology of Wahhabism and represents a new stage in the proliferation of Western values throughout the Saudi elite–which should be utilized. Given the potential of such a leader to help modernize the Saudi Kingdom and potentially build bridges with our ally Israel, the U.S. should encourage re-engaging this new leader both for the sakes of regional stability and promoting the change this represents. If the West desires that the Saudis, or other governments, modify their behavior, then the West should engage rather than suspect states offering olive branches.