Reuters/Fayez Nureldine
Princess Reema with Theresa May in 2017.
THE LOOK OF REFORM

Saudi Arabia’s next US ambassador could be the royal family’s “face of women’s rights”

By Heather Timmons

Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia ambassador to the US and younger brother of the ruling crown prince, left the kingdom’s embassy in Washington last week on what is being called a fact-finding mission about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The US State Department told the ambassador to bring back answers about what happened to Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, US officials said. “We have said to him that we expect information upon his return to the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Oct. 11. Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say he was murdered and dismembered by people close to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Trump administration is still expecting the ambassador to return. Saudi experts and dissidents in the US believe that is unlikely. Instead, some say, his cousin Princess Reema bint Bandar is already being floated at a likely replacement, as the royal family attempts to salvage its reputation and relationships in the US.

Reema could be named before the end of the year, said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident based in Washington who is an analyst with the Gulf Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.  The royal family is “trying to promote her as the new head” of Saudi Arabia in the west, he said. The State Department referred all questions to the Saudi embassy, which didn’t respond to calls and emails.

Reema, a George Washington University graduate, spent some of her childhood in the US, as the daughter of Bandar bin Sultan, ambassador to the US for more than 20 years. As the head of Saudi luxury retailer Alfa Intl, she was lauded by western media for her “bold moves,” like pushing for female sales clerks.

She has appeared at global events like the World Economic Forum and South by Southwest and has played a key role in spreading the message of the kingdom opening up and reforming, even as the royal family has cracked down on dissent behind the scenes. She invited Ivanka Trump to speak about “female empowerment” in Saudi Arabia last year, and her Twitter feed spreads messages of women’s advancement:

Reema explained how Saudi Arabia planned to expand citizens’ participation in sports at London’s Chatham House this March. “The choices that women have today are greater than yesterday and every day they will grow more,” she said. At the time, the government was about to launch what Human Rights Watch called an “unprecedented” crackdown on women’s rights activists that has led to the detention of more than a dozen.

The Saudi Reemiyah Company, the private equity fund the princess founded, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Saudi sports authority, where she serves as head of women’s affairs.