Saudi Arabia has named its first female ambassador to the United States, a key appointment as the fallout over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder tests relations between the allies.
Princess Reema bint Bandar replaced Prince Khalid bin Salman, the younger brother of the powerful crown prince who was appointed vice defence minister in a flurry of late-night royal decrees announced on state media.
Prince Khalid’s appointment further centralises power in one branch of the ruling family after the crown prince took control of most levers of power and policy in the world’s top oil exporter.
The reshuffle comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to quell an international outcry over Khashoggi’s murder last October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which strained relations with its key ally.
After initially denying no knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, the kingdom finally acknowledged Saudi agents killed him inside the consulate, but described it as a rogue operation.
Princess Reema faces hostile US lawmakers who have threatened to take tough action against Saudi Arabia over the brutal killing amid claims that the crown prince – the de-facto ruler who also serves as the defence minister – was personally responsible.
The Saudi government has denied he had anything to do with the murder of Khashoggi, a royal insider-turned-critic who was a columnist with the Washington Post.
“The appointment of a new envoy signifies an attempt by Riyadh to try and reset relations with Washington and draw a line under the Khashoggi affair, however unlikely that may be in practice, at least with congress,” Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in US, said.
Princess Reema, the daughter of a former longtime ambassador to the US, has been a leading advocate of female empowerment in the kingdom, which has long faced criticism over its treatment of women.
The princess previously worked at the kingdom’s General Sports Authority, where she led a campaign to increase women’s participation in sports.