Saudi Prince shows grip on power, names first female US envoy

  • Mohammed Bin Salman’s full brother named vice defense minister
  • Princess Reema to be envoy in U.S. as first female ambassador

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman solidified his immediate family’s sway by promoting his full brother and tried to turn the page on relations with the U.S. by appointing the kingdom’s first female ambassador to America.

Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan will replace Prince Khalid bin Salman, who was named vice defense minister. The decision to pick the daughter of a longtime Saudi envoy in Washington suggests the government is trying to soften its image at a time of tense relations with Congress over the murder of Saudi insider-turned-critic Jamal Khashoggi as well as outrage over the arrest of women activists and Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

The royal order announcing the appointments was made late on Saturday by the crown prince, who is also the defense minister, on behalf of King Salman.

“The appointment of Princess Reema represents a new beginning, trying to polish the image of Saudi Arabia and reinforce the image of the king and his son as reformers,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “They’re trying to address concerns and the critics of the kingdom in the United States.”

Power in Saudi Arabia has historically been meticulously distributed between members of the vast ruling family. King Salman’s reign changed that convention by sidelining rival branches of the House of Saud. The elevation of Prince Mohammed’s sibling — a former fighter pilot who’s also under the age of 35 — suggests no change in the approach despite the intense pressure in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder in October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“The vice minister has virtually the same authority as the minister,” said Ali Al Shihabi, founder of Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington. “Given that the defense minister is also the crown prince, that means that KBS is now effectively the Defense Minister,” he said on Twitter, referring to Prince Khalid by his initials.

Princess Reema, a George Washington University graduate, is the daughter of Bandar bin Sultan, a flamboyant and influential former ambassador to the U.S. who acquired the controversial nickname “Bandar Bush” for his closeness with the Bush family. She was the first woman to head the Saudi Federation for Community Sports and worked alongside the Education Ministry to include sports education for girls in schools.

The crown prince also ordered the payment of a month’s salary to military personnel involved in operations on the country’s southern borders, where Saudi Arabia is at war with Yemeni rebels.

Prince Mohammed has already consolidated his domestic base of support, and his brother’s appointment is like “icing on the cake,” according to Gerges.

“In the eyes of many critics in the United States, the brother of the crown prince became implicated, rightly or wrongly,” which has undermined his ability to effectively represent Saudi Arabia, Gerges said.

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