Saudi Arabia has appointed its first female ambassador to serve as its top diplomat in the United States, pulling a son of King Salman back to the kingdom to serve as deputy defence minister amid deteriorating ties with the US after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, a daughter of the kingdom’s longtime ambassador to Washington Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, faces a stark challenge in improving the image of Saudi Arabia in the US.
She replaces Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, a son of King Salman and a former fighter pilot who insisted after Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2 that the Washington Post columnist simply left the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Instead, members of the entourage of his brother, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, assassinated and dismembered Khashoggi inside the diplomatic post, in what Saudi Arabian authorities said was a rogue operation.
They need good PR, frankly. But make no mistake, she is very successful, eloquent and is deserving of the job.
The Post, citing unnamed sources in November, also reported that US intelligence agencies reviewed a phone call that Prince Khalid had with Khashoggi, in which he allegedly told the writer he would be safe going to the consulate to retrieve the documents he needed to get married.
The newspaper said it was not known whether the ambassador knew Khashoggi would be killed, though he made the call at the direction of the crown prince. The Saudi embassy in Washington has denied the call took place.
Princess Reema, who studied in the US and is known in the kingdom for her philanthropic work, lived in the US as her father served as the Saudi ambassador there for more than 20 years. Her father also served as the head of the country’s intelligence service.
“I will work with God’s permission to serve my country, its leaders and all its children and I will spare no effort to that end,” Princess Reema wrote on Twitter after her appointment.
Bessma Momani, professor of political science at Canada’s University of Waterloo, told Al Jazeera that the appointment was about improving Saudi Arabia’s image by showing that they are committed to the progress of women.
“The way it is received is probably one of a PR exercise, in an attempt to deflect attention away after a very tumultuous year after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a lot of continued criticism of the Saudis in the war in Yemen and other policies within Washington and beyond,” Momani said.
“[Princess Reema] understands the culture, knows how to be a valuable interlocutor, all of the qualities that you want in a diplomat, particularly in a post like the United States.
“But of course, I think there are many people who will see this totally for a PR exercise … they need good PR, frankly. But make no mistake, she is very successful, eloquent and is deserving of the job,” Momani said.
Prince Khalid returns to Riyadh as a deputy defence minister. Crown Prince Mohammed has held the position of defence minister even after becoming the next in line to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom.
His naming comes as Saudi Arabia remains mired in its years-long war in Yemen, which also have strained US relations to the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has faced growing Western criticism over its air raids hitting markets and clinics, killing civilians.
US legislators are increasingly pushing to withdraw US support for the conflict, which pits the kingdom and its allies against the Houthi rebels that hold Sanaa, the capital of the Arab world’s poorest nation.
Another royal decree from King Salman overnight granted a month’s salary as a bonus to Saudi soldiers on the kingdom’s southern border with Yemen.