Saudi Arabia’s appointment of the first woman ambassador to the United States ~ a Princess to boot ~ might on the face of it appear to be a profoundly critical step towards the empowerment of women in a theocratic land. It is. That inference would, however, be rather too simplistic, for there is no mistaking that the appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar is bathed in symbolism when contextualised with the global outcry against the palace in the aftermath of the brutal killing of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, last October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. There is little doubt that the tragedy has soured relations between the allies despite Donald Trump’s diplomatic silence, rooted in his anxiety not to ruffle the feathers of the world’s leading oil exporter. In parallel, the naming of the outgoing ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman. the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), as vice defence minister is more than a routine reshuffle. Having come under a cloud over Khashoggi’s murder, the agenda of the palace in Riyadh is doubtless geared to centralising power in one branch of the ruling family. It is a pregnant royal decree that was advanced on Sunday, one that makes it pretty obvious that Princess Reema’s appointment is a fallout of the killing. After initially denying knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, the kingdom has finally acknowledged that Saudi agents killed him inside the consulate, but described it as a “rogue operation”. Arguably, the recent visits of the enormously powerful Crown Prince to Pakistan and India were fundamentally intended to burnish his image. The comity of nations will neither forget nor forgive the killing of a doughty dissident.
Princess Reema succeeds to a depleted inheritance, however coveted the appointment in the geopolitical perspective. For all the oil revenue, it shall not be easy to refurbish the kingdom’s reputation. She will above all have to countenance hostile US lawmakers who have threatened to take tough action against Saudi Arabia over the brutal killing. Most particularly, the waters are murkier with claims that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was personally responsible… to the extent that there was initially talk of a reshuffle within the palace itself. Well above 80, the King is much too old to effect a change in the order of succession. The appointment of a new ambassador signifies an attempt by Riyadh to try and mend fences with Washington. However much the royalty tries to relegate the Khashoggi affair to the footnotes, this is easier contemplated than accomplished. Not wholly unrelated is the appointment of Prince Khalid as vice defence minister when the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia remains bogged down in a fouryear conflict in neighbouring Yemen. It is early days to speculate whether the diplomacy of Princess Reema bint Bandar in Washington will be fruitful.