SARAH Al-MUWAD WRITES– Is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the fifth largest country in Asia, actually working towards female empowerment? And is this to advance the kingdom’s international reputation, which has recently taken a huge hit?

The answer is yes.

On February 23, history was made when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appointed 43-year-old Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud to be the first female ambassador to the United States.

What Did Saudi Arabia Do?

Saudi Arabia has recently been in hot water for violent controversies: the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and the torture while under arrest of Saudi women’s rights activists. Several members of the US Senate, on either side of the political aisle, have been vociferous about the need for the US to take steps against Saudi Arabia for repeated human rights abuses.

In addition, the kingdom’s international reputation has been bludgeoned by condemnation from other countries, including  Sweden and Germany, which have halted arms sales to the country.

“By appointing the first female in the history of their diplomatic corps to be ambassador to Washington, they are seeking to use the time to change Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Arab Weekly.

“While I’d expect Princess Reema to be outgoing and articulate, her principal target will be a public one. She will be a stark contrast to her father, who reveled in being a trusted but often invisible adviser to the highest rungs of the US government,” he added.

Why Reema bint Bandar?

Reema bint Bandar, a Saudi princess, is considered one of the most successful and powerful women in the country. A divorced mother of two, she graduated with a BA in Museum Studies from George Washington University and is fluent in both English and Arabic. Bandar previously worked at the kingdom’s General Sports Authority, where she led a robust campaign to proclaim the importance of sports education for girls in schools.

Princess Reema has been as successful as she has been outspoken.  Among her many accomplishments: 1) speaking publicly about the challenges and social barriers she’s had to resist just to do her job; 2) advocating for the crown prince’s reform program, with the  goals of diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy and promoting social change, including women’s right to drive; 3) founding a social enterprise, Alf Khair, which focuses on  professional guidance and career management for Saudi women; and 4) serving as CEO of Alfa International, a multi-brand luxury retail company, in which capacity she introduced a training program that increased performance levels of Saudi women in retail operations.

Small wonder that in 2014, Forbes Middle East ranked Princess Reema 31 on its list of 200 of the most powerful Arab women in the world.

“As a poised and articulate royal, Princess Reema will represent a persistent reminder to Washington that the kingdom is changing and her presence is intended to overwhelm the concerns about the country’s leadership in Riyadh,” Alterman analyzed.

Now, the princess faces her biggest challenge to date: smoothing relations not just with the US but with the rest of the world.

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