When Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan was appointed as Saudi ambassador to the US in February 2019, some thought that it was a simple return for the new envoy to Washington D.C., the city she grew up in when her father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, served as ambassador from October 1983 until September 2005, witnessing years of important political events.
Prince Bandar was not just any ambassador; he was the personal representative of the late King Fahd, who granted him his trust in return for the prince’s brilliance and courage. The king assigned Prince Bandar to manage sensitive files related to the US during the Cold War period, including the Iran-Iraq War and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
Accordingly, some thought that the appointment of Princess Reema by King Salman was an “honorary” gesture in honor of her father’s and family’s profile. However, this analysis was wrong, as the period in which the princess was appointed was one of political ambiguity.
The princess submitted her credentials to former US president Donald Trump, the Republican who reached a political position thanks to his business expertise. In his speeches, Trump addressed audiences directly with populist rhetoric. He arrived at the White House after the eight-year term of Barack Obama, who adopted a foreign policy toward the Middle East which failed to focus on files related to the Kingdom.
Therefore, the appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar at that time came to push the Saudi diplomatic service forward to strengthen the bilateral relationship at all levels. The princess established an important agenda of several items, the most important of which were those related to bilateral social relations and building mutual trust, not only with the political administration, but also with influential elites, media outlets and US society.
Another important message of the appointment was that it promoted the Kingdom, in compliance with Vision 2030, as in “transformation mode,” as diplomatic work was no longer the monopoly of men. Today, the Kingdom is represented by a young educated women holding a bachelor’s degree in arts from The George Washington University in the most important international political capital.
The occupation of important positions in the diplomatic service by Saudi women is the result of an accumulation of work and experience, in addition to policies aiming to restore women’s status and break old stereotypes that monopolized political work for men.
The appointment of the princess was never an adopted “protocol” but rather an opportunity to utilize a personality who has great knowledge of American society.
The aforementioned example proves that granting Saudi women the opportunity to take part in the diplomatic service is not superficial propaganda for advertising and marketing, but rather real work aiming toward engaging Saudi women effectively in several governmental and private sectors to achieve the utmost equality and justice between the genders.
With the onset of 2023, Saudi Arabia raised the number of ambassadors in the diplomatic service, with Nisreen Al-Shibel and Haifa Al-Jedea joining the list of the Kingdom’s representatives abroad.
The full list now includes the names of Princess Reema (US), Einas Al-Shahwan (Sweden), Amal Al-Moallimi (Norway) and Princess Haifa Al-Muqrin, the permanent representative of the Kingdom to UNESCO.
Al-Shibel will be the Saudi ambassador to Finland, while Al-Jedea will be in charge of heading the Saudi mission to the EU and the European Atomic Energy Community.
During a podcast interview, Al-Shahwan talked about her diplomatic experience. She also talked about a time when she worked in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and met with late minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who told her that her “turn is coming,” while noting that Saudi women must start their training and be prepared for the future. Back then, the number of seats dedicated to Saudi women in the ministry was 25, but in 2023 is 300.
Day after day, the presence of Saudi women in the labor market is increasing. According to the latest figures issued by the General Authority for Statistics, the participation rate in the labor force of Saudi women witnessed growth that exceeded that of the ratio of employed women relative to the population. The rate of labor force participation for Saudi women reached 37 percent, while the ratio of employed Saudi women to the population grew to 29.4 percent.
During the launch of activities for the 12th Social Dialogue Forum, Ahmed Al-Rajhi, the Saudi minister of human resources and social development, said in his opening speech that “the ministry was keen to harmonize with all its partners in the labor market, which it considered as an important element in success and development, since women’s empowerment is one of the most important goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.”
The Kingdom’s position was pushed forward in terms of indicators related to women, namely the indicator of women’s share in the labor market, which reached 31.8 percent, exceeding 2020’s target of 27.6 percent. Figures issued by the ministry also showed an increase in leadership positions occupied by Saudi women — from 21.5 percent in 2016 to 45 percent in 2022.
The occupation of important positions in the diplomatic service by Saudi women is the result of an accumulation of work and experience, in addition to policies aiming to restore women’s status, break old stereotypes that monopolized political work for men, and prove that Saudi women are able to benefit from their experience, knowledge and training, to give their best on merit.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa