Embassy Row: Cabbages and Kings

Saudi Arabia may send its first female ambassador to the United States, but will that help?

By Roland Flamini

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud at CNN Headquarters in Los Angeles. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Saudi ambassador, Prince Khaled bin Salman, hastily packed his bags and left Washington for Riyadh a day or so following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert declared, “We have said to him we expect information upon his return to the United States.” This sounded like code for: You’d better have an acceptable explanation for the incident when you return.

As it turned out, Prince Khaled was leaving with a one-way ticket. The Central Intelligence Agency reportedly has evidence that it was Khaled who urged Khashoggi, in a phone conversation, to visit the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in the first place – assuring his safety. The Washington Post columnist needed documents from his homeland for his forthcoming marriage. Once inside the consulate, he was interrogated, killed and dismembered, on orders – according to the CIA – of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and the ambassador’s big brother.

As the CIA assessment (widely reported, but not yet made public at the time of writing) makes clear: Prince Mohammed – commonly known as MBS – had kept things in the family, so kid bro had to beat a hasty exit out of Washington before whatever the Arabic is for the unmentionable hit the fan.

Khaled’s successor is strongly rumored to be Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, daughter of former long-time Saudi envoy to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Raised in the United States, she graduated from George Washington University in Museum Studies and interned at the Sackler Gallery of Art. Back home in Riyadh, she has been articulate and active in enlarging the space Saudi women are allowed to occupy in sports (she opened the desert kingdom’s first women’s gym) and has run several high profile businesses and philanthropies.

Not surprisingly, Fatima Baeshem, the strikingly elegant but misnamed “spokesperson” of the Saudi Embassy, will not comment on reports of a Reema bint Bandar appointment despite the story circulating for some weeks in both Washington and the kingdom.

Reema’s appointment would be typical of MBS’s thinking, and the princess has shown signs of being on his wavelength. At the Davos World Economic Forum in January, her defense of the kingdom’s reforms went viral. “There is a determination to not allow [Saudi Arabia] to create a new narrative,” she complained. “Once we exhibit change you come with cynicism. I don’t know how to explain how destructive that is … Please understand the values we have are different. They are not right or wrong and they should be honored for what they are.” The question is: does that difference include chopping up opponents with impunity?

The Saudis may regard sending a woman ambassador with a Western education to Washington as a good public relations move, but it will do little to quell the political storm scudding over the embassy. The Trump administration may insist on business as usual with the Saudis—but that is hardly the end of the story.

No doubt encouraged by Trump’s skepticism of his own intelligence service, the Saudi regime has rejected as false the C.I.A. assessment. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Juber, who as a former ambassador to Washington clearly knows better, issued a flat denial that the Crown Prince was involved in Khashoggi’s killing.

The last word, of course, will eventually come from Riyadh when the doddery King Salman pays his final visit to the hospital of his choice. After that, MBS may be lucky if he ends up in exile in Gaithersburg.

This article appeared in the Holiday 2019 issue of Washington Life magazine. 

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