Saudi Ambassador Princess Reema navigates rough waters in Washington

She attended Holton Arms School, an elite all-girls school outside Washington. Over the weekend, she strolled through the Tysons Corner Center shopping mall in Northern Virginia with her friends. Three American secretaries of state, Colin L. Powell, James A. Baker, and Madeline Albright, were regulars at her family’s home.

Most recently, Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud, 48, the daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one of Washington’s most powerful diplomats when he served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States for more than 20 years, revealed that her father’s I’m taking over my old job.

It wasn’t easy.

She became the first woman to hold the post in July 2019, less than a year after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents. She faced the daunting task of trying to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is credited by US intelligence agencies with approving Khashoggi’s gruesome murder. By early 2021, she had navigated the switch from the warm embrace of President Trump to the hostility of President Biden, who as a 2019 candidate called Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”

In the turbulent five years since her arrival, Saudi Arabia’s and Princess Reema’s fortunes in Washington have changed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need for Saudi aid in the oil market led Biden to a diplomatic fist-bump with the crown prince in Jeddah in the summer of 2022. Princess Reema is backed by the kingdom’s multimillion-dollar lobbying effort, and her propaganda machine has grudgingly gained attention as part of the détente.

“The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has had many ups and downs,” she said in a recent interview in American English with someone who grew up in the United States from an early age. “And part of my responsibility was to remind the American people of what the best looks like and really work together to get back there.”

The return to more friendly relations was not smooth. The White House was furious at Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut oil production just months after Biden’s visit. Mr. Khashoggi’s murder – Princess Reema supported the crown prince’s confession of innocence – left a deep scar on the psyche of journalists and politicians. Despite legal benefits for women in Saudi Arabia, the authoritarian government has stepped up its crackdown on dissent.

But Princess Reema is in the room when it matters. She visited Jeddah in mid-March and met with the Crown Prince and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to discuss continued plans to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have been stalled for the time being due to the war in Gaza. A week later, she met in Riyadh with the crown prince and Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, a key proponent of a possible Saudi-Israel deal, and said that the U.S. defense of Saudi Arabia as part of such an agreement We talked about strategies.

The crown prince will ultimately make the decision, but it is unclear how much influence Princess Reema will have in the negotiations. Her greatest value to Riyadh may be as a Saudi woman spreading a new vision of the kingdom to the United States, and as a friendly face with long-standing family ties in Washington who defuses egos and tensions on Capitol Hill. do not have.

“I accept that we won’t always agree,” she said at the embassy’s office, located across from the Watergate Building on a street that city officials have renamed Jamal Khashoggi Avenue.

Her demeanor was friendly yet dignified, befitting a direct descendant of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. During her interview, she pointed to a black-and-white photo on the wall of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1945 meeting with the King aboard the American cruiser Quincy in the Suez Canal. This encounter set the tone for 80 years. US-Saudi relations. The king expressed the strong opposition of the Arabs of the time to the creation of a Jewish state in divided Palestine.

Shortly after arriving in Washington as ambassador, Princess Reema sought advice from Mr. Powell, an old friend of her father’s.

“Remember, you are not your father,” Princess Reema recalled Mr Powell, who passed away in 2021, telling her. “If you try to be a father, you’ll fail.”

“I didn’t know I needed to hear those words,” she added. “But I heard it.”

Prince Vandal was unique in Washington. His close ties to Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and especially Bush, gave him special access to the highest echelons of government and earned him the nickname “Vander Bush.” Charismatic, inventive and relentless, he hosts lavish dinners in his vast mansion overlooking the Potomac River and entertains Saudi friends at his beach house in Jeddah and his homes in Aspen, London and the south of France. courted.

During his time as ambassador from 1983 to 2005, Crown Prince Bandar fought with Saudi Arabia through economic tensions over Saudi Arabia’s use of oil prices to flex its power, two Iraq wars, and Saudi terrorist attacks. He sought to keep the unstable alliance between the United States stable. September 11, 2001.

His daughter works in a completely different environment.

“Our interests intersect with Saudi Arabia far less than the foreign policy consensus would lead us to believe,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who has met with Princess Reema. “I think Saudi Arabia has been upending the foreign policy consensus in Washington for the past 20 years.”

In an effort to combat that feeling, Princess Reema worked hard in the hills. With her long flowing hair and a loose-fitting hijab, she has worked diligently on committees, foreign relations and military activities important to Saudi Arabia, and has cultivated relationships with both Democrats and Republicans. She is meeting with visiting Saudi government ministers and U.S. officials over Middle Eastern appetizers at her home in McLean, Virginia, where she grew up. She traveled to the United States spreading the word about Saudi Arabia’s modernization.

Middle East experts say the task has become even more arduous after President Donald J. Trump left the White House.

Brian H. Hook, a former State Department official who worked closely with Mr. Reema under Mr. Trump, said, “Mr. Reema clearly faced different issues than Mr. Trump to Mr. I continued with the same approach of searching.” “The Biden administration eventually found them, and her role has only grown.”

After Mr Graham threatened in 2018 with a “bipartisan tsunami” against the crown prince if he was deemed responsible for Mr Khashoggi’s murder, Princess Reema spoke to the Crown Prince after arriving in Washington. I tried to convince him. Mr. Graham said at her command. $37 billion order from Kingdom for Boeing aircraftwill be assembled by workers in South Carolina – he met the crown prince Last April, at the Royal Palace in Riyadh.

“I said, ‘Thank you for buying me a jet.’ I want to build a new relationship,” the senator recalled telling the crown prince at that meeting.

During a dinner at Café Milano, which was also attended by former CIA director Gen. David H. Petraeus, Princess Reema was seated near Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia. In a conversation that night, Mr. Khanna blamed Saudi Arabia for the growing humanitarian crisis in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He said he expected a cold retort from Princess Reema, but she instead accepted her invitation.

“I just said, ‘Dinner might not be the place for conversation, but can I come to your office?'” Princess Reema recalled. “He was very, very welcoming and very, very open.”

Khanna said during the Capitol Hill meeting that he told the ambassador that bombing in Yemen needed to stop and the blockade on Saudi Arabia needed to be lifted to avoid further damage to the support of U.S. lawmakers. She said Princess Reema conveyed a message to her leaders and assured lawmakers that Saudi Arabia also wants to work towards peace in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia had been mired in Yemen for years, but under pressure from the United States, it eventually scaled back its military involvement and Saudi authorities entered peace talks with the Houthis.

Khanna currently describes Princess Reema as “one of the most thoughtful and dynamic leaders on Middle East issues.”

Born in Riyadh, the second of eight children to Prince Bandar and his wife Princess Haifa Al Faisal, Princess Reema lived in McLean from the age of seven.

She graduated from George Washington University in 1999 with a degree in museum studies, worked at trade shows in the United States as a retail buyer of clothing and beauty products at a family-owned fitness boutique in the Kingdom, and had two children. Then, when he turned one year old, he returned to Saudi Arabia. Her father resigned as ambassador in October of the same year. There she worked as a retail executive, breast cancer activist, and women’s sports official for the Saudi government at a time when gyms, stadium space, and public toilets for women were rare in sports complexes.

By the time she was appointed ambassador in February 2019, she was divorced. Under her kingdom’s strict guardianship laws, she needed her father’s permission to travel to the United States.

Once in Washington, she relied on former members of her father’s inner circle, such as Mr. Powell, as well as her own newly expanding circle. She developed kinship ties with Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, and his wife, as well as the ambassadors of Jordan and Kuwait.

She also owns the Des Moines-based communications and lobbying firm LS2 Group for about $1 million a year, according to federal filings analyzed by Open Secret, a nonpartisan investigative organization that tracks political money. I was hiring.It was a small but noteworthy slice $56 million That’s how much the Saudis spent on lobbying, propaganda and American operations last year.

LS2’s mission was to promote more Main Street-oriented lobbying throughout Saudi Arabia. Launched in 2020 with emails and texts to local businesses, civil society organizations, and journalists, LS2 seeks to promote Saudi Arabia as a U.S. trading partner and job creator while embracing the concept of gender equality and diversity at home. promoted a narrative about a benevolent role;

Princess Reema was the woman at the front desk. She visited Cheyenne, Wyoming, to mark International Women’s Day as the first state to grant women the right to vote. In Salt Lake City, she met with Mormon leaders and emphasized the nation’s shared values ​​of faith and family.

She toured a Boeing aircraft assembly line in North Charleston, South Carolina, and thanked the workers who are part of the company for keeping her safe during her father’s days flying F-15s, and the 370 planes from Saudi Arabia. It advertised a billion dollar order. Meanwhile, Boeing gifted her a model of a Saudi airliner, which she prominently displays in her office.

“This job is not just about meeting very important senators. It’s about these people,” Princess Reema said.

Today, as the Israel-Hamas war enters its seventh month, Princess Reema assured key lawmakers and Biden administration officials that diplomatic relations with Israel remain within reach. However, she said Saudi Arabia would not sign such an agreement without concrete commitments on the Palestinian issue.

“The kingdom is very strong,” she said. “We not only recognize Israel, we are willing to do the necessary work. But we need a two-state solution and it cannot be an open-ended one,” she said. . “At this point, it has to be a finite and definitive path with a very specific date.”

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