A Saudi Arabian first: Spokeswoman at Kingdom’s US Embassy

Fatimah Baeshen
Updated 19 October 2017

A Saudi Arabian first: Spokeswoman at Kingdom’s US Embassy

WASHINGTON: As Saudi Arabia feverishly portrays itself as ready to join the ranks of modern, tolerant societies, the Kingdom has turned to a once-unlikely messenger — one of its daughters — to make its case to the West.
On Fatimah Baeshen’s first day as the Saudi Embassy in Washington’s official spokeswoman, a royal decree was issued to lift a ban on women driving, starting next summer.
Baeshen, the first woman to hold embassy post, is no stranger to life behind the wheel of a car. The Saudi-born Baeshen spent years living, working and studying in the US, affording an easy fluency in the routines of American life that many Westerners see as irreconcilable with the country she represents.
“I’m a byproduct of the longstanding Saudi-US relationship,” Baeshen said in an Associated Press interview. “For years, Saudi students have been coming to the US to study. There are several Saudis that are like me, that are very comfortable and are able to fluidly go back and forth between cultures.”
For Saudi Arabia, Baeshen’s appointment reflects an opportunity to try to revise a narrative that is sharply at odds with the kingdom’s ambitious plan to transform itself for the future. In addition to sweeping economic changes, “Vision 2030” calls for easing social restrictions as a younger generation prepares to take the helm.
The Kingdom’s economic overhaul also means bringing more Saudi women into the workforce, with an eye toward creating more two-income households and weaning Saudis off of reliance on government perks. The official plan calls for increasing female participation from 22 percent to 30 percent.
“Women across the board deal with different issues, regardless of where they are,” Baeshen told the AP. She said the driving issue shouldn’t obscure the fact that Saudi women have been productive members of society for decades. “The myopic focus of this element I think deters the larger perception of what Saudi women have really been able to contribute.”
After attending the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she wrote a thesis on Islamic financial regulation in secular markets while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. She worked in the Saudi Ministry of Labor and at the World Bank before joining the embassy.
As a director at the Arabia Foundation, she wrote in Time Magazine earlier this year: “The change-through-confrontation approach is counterproductive to achieving our collective goal; force is too often met with the strongest of cultural resistance.”
“Empowerment is about access, choice and control. Saudi Arabia has made tangible strides in the spheres of access and choice,” Baeshen said. “There are elements to be improved with respect to control.”

Motorsport, rock bands, tourists … welcome to the new Saudi Arabia

There was an explosion of joy at the podium when Antonio Felix da Costa lifted the winner’s trophy at the conclusion of the Formula E Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix on Saturday. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 16 December 2018

Motorsport, rock bands, tourists … welcome to the new Saudi Arabia

  • Three-day event at Ad Diriyah reaches spectacular climax in an unprecedented spirit of openness

The driver with the winner’s trophy was Antonio Felix da Costa — but the real winners were Saudi Arabia itself, and more than 1,000 tourists visiting the country for the first time.

Da Costa, the Andretti Motorsport driver, won the Formula E Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix in front of thousands of race fans at a custom-built track in the historic district on the outskirts of Riyadh.

But in truth, the event was about much more than high-tech electric cars hurtling round a race track — thrilling though that was. The three-day festival of motorsport, culture and entertainment was Saudi Arabia’s chance to prove that it can put on a show to rival anything in the world, and which only two years ago would have been unthinkable.

The event was also the first to be linked to the Sharek electronic visa system, allowing foreigners other than pilgrims or business visitors to come to Saudi Arabia.

Jason, from the US, is spending a week in the country with his German wife, riding quad bikes in the desert and visiting heritage sites. “I’ve always wanted to come for many, many years ... I’m so happy to be here and that they’re letting us be here,” he said.

Aaron, 40, a software engineer, traveled from New York for two days. “Saudi Arabia has always been an exotic place ... and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to come here,” he said.

About 1,000 visitors used the Sharek visa, a fraction of what Saudi Arabia aims eventually to attract. 

“Hopefully we will learn from this and see what we need to do for the future, but I can tell you from now that there is a lot of demand,” said Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, vice chairman of the General Sports Authority.

His optimism was backed by Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund and a visitor to Ad Diriyah. “Such events will attract tourists and are a true celebration for young Saudis who desire a bright future,” he said.

“The vision of moderate Islam, promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is important both for the region and the entire world, and its realization needs to be appreciated, respected and supported.”

The event ended on Saturday night with a spectacular show by US band OneRepublic and the superstar DJ David Guetta. “Just when you think things can’t get better, they suddenly do,” said concertgoer Saleh Saud. “This is the new Saudi Arabia, and I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.”