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Saudi Arabia appoints first female ambassador to United States

Princess Reema bint Bandar, who will be Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, has been focused on social changes in the country, such as granting women the right to drive. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia has appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar, a former business executive and philanthropist who lived in the United States for more than two decades, as the country’s next ambassador to Washington.

She is Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador. Her appointment, which was announced in a royal decree late Saturday, was the latest sign of the kingdom’s effort to rehabilitate its image in the United States after U.S. lawmakers censured the Saudi leadership for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, and the arrests and alleged torture of Saudi women’s rights activists.  

Reema will replace Khalid bin Salman, who served as ambassador when Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Khalid, a younger brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was accused of helping to cover up the murder. Another royal decree issued Saturday said Khalid will serve as deputy defense minister.  

The CIA concluded in November that Mohammed is likely to have ordered the killing, which Saudi officials have denied. Despite the CIA finding and pushback from Congress, President Trump has steadfastly defended Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day ruler, insisting that human rights concerns should not override the strategic partnership between Washington and Riyadh, which includes shared antipathy toward Iran, or threaten American jobs that depend on Saudi purchases of U.S. weaponry. 

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Reema’s father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had the longest tenure of any Saudi ambassador to the United States, serving for 22 years until he retired in 2005. Like her father, Reema was educated in the United States and graduated from George Washington University in 1999, according to a biography posted on the website of the official Saudi news agency.  

Reema has worked for Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and as the chief executive of Alfa International, a luxury retail company. She has promoted greater inclusion for Saudi women in sports and breast cancer awareness, according to her official biography.  

In recent years, Reema has been a vocal advocate for the crown prince’s reform program, which has focused on diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy and social changes such asgranting women the right to drive.  

But in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in June, after the driving ban had ended, Reema appeared to acknowledge complaints that Mohammed was sending contradictory signals to women. He had lifted the driving ban but, at the same time, ordered the arrests of a group of female activists who had campaigned — in some cases, for decades — for that right and for the repeal of regulations that required women to seek the permission of a male guardian to work or travel.

Many of the women have been tortured in custody, according to human rights groups and relatives.        

“A lot of people ask me: Is this schizophrenic? Are you really moving forward? Is this real?” Reema said in the interview. The arrests had been a matter of “national security,” she said, adding that she did not want to comment further, in part because she knew the families of some of the arrested women.

But as a divorced mother of two, she said, the conversations about women’s rights, including the guardianship laws, were “urgent for me.”  

“I actually do have a family that will allow me to be mobile and dynamic, but that is not the reality of a lot of women. And until it’s the reality for a lot of women, I think we need to keep pushing forward,” she said. 

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