On 23 February 2019, Saudi Arabia appointed its first ever female ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud. She will serve as the ambassador to the United States (US). She is a member of the royal family, and has been widely known for her advocacy work around women’s rights in the kingdom. She succeeds Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the previous ambassador, who is also the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Khalid bin Salman had been withdrawn to Riyadh as ambassador shortly after the disappearance of the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in October 2018. Since Khalid bin Salman returned to Riyadh and before Reema bint Bandar assumed her role, Saudi Arabia did not have an ambassador in Washington. Her appointment appears to indicate that Saudi Arabia hopes to return to “business as usual” with the United States and that it no longer needs to be on the defensive about Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its previous ambassador to the US in the days after Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance amid deteriorating US-Saudi ties. Around the time of Khalid bin Salman’s return to Riyadh, evidence was emerging that Saudi agents may have murdered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Days later it was brought to light that Khashoggi was killed and his body was dismembered with a bone saw. In reaction to his death, some US and other international investors backed out of participating in the Davos in the Desert conference organized in the Kingdom.
In addition to facing criticism from the international business community for Khashoggi’s killing, the US Congress has taken steps to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights abuses, from Khashoggi’s death to the war in Yemen. While the Trump Administration attempted to push through an eight billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Congress attempted to block these arms sales to demonstrate their disapproval of their repeated human rights abuses, as well as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Congressional disapproval of Saudi Arabia’s actions also extends to the kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen. By attempting to block arms sales, Congress is expressing its concern that US weapons would be used against Yemen civilians by Saudi forces. Even as Congress is attempting to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its abuses, the Trump administration has made it clear that security concerns and the decades-old US-Saudi relationship trump human rights concerns.
Although Saudi Arabia appointed a woman as its US ambassador, a first for the kingdom, she is part of a royal family that systematically suppresses human rights and restricts fundamental freedoms. Saudi Arabia feels they have successfully redirected America’s discontent of its human rights abuses by appointing a new female ambassador. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud’s appointment is likely to be a tool to obscure the kingdom’s human rights violations. However, Congress must continue to push the administration to take steps to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its abuses.
Tovah Bloomfield is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB