Princess Reema, Bandar’s Daughter, Navigates Rough Waters in Washington

She attended the elite Holton-Arms School for girls in the suburbs outside Washington. On weekends she strolled with friends on shopping trips through the Tysons Corner Center mall in Northern Virginia. Three American secretaries of state — Colin L. Powell, James A. Baker and Madeleine Albright — were regular guests in her parents’ home.

These days, Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud, 48, the daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one of the most powerful diplomats in Washington when he was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States for more than two decades, occupies her father’s old job.

It has not been easy.

She landed in Washington as the first woman in the post in July 2019, less than a year after Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents. She faced the formidable task of trying to rehabilitate Saudi’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was assessed by U.S. intelligence agencies to have approved the grisly killing of Mr. Khashoggi. By early 2021 she was navigating the switch from the warm embrace of the Trump White House to the hostility of President Biden, who as a candidate in 2019 called the kingdom a “pariah.”

In the five tumultuous years since her arrival, Saudi Arabia’s fortunes in Washington, and Princess Reema’s, have turned. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need for Saudi support in the oil markets led President Biden to a diplomatic fist-bump with the crown prince in Jeddah in the summer of 2022. Princess Reema, with the assistance of her kingdom’s multimillion dollar lobbying and publicity machine, has been a high-profile part of the grudging détente.

“In the relationship that the kingdom and the U.S. have had, there have been multiple highs and multiple lows,” she said during a recent interview in the American English of a person who grew up in the United States from a young age. “And part of my responsibility was to remind everybody in America what the highs looked like, and really work collaboratively to get ourselves back there.”

The return to friendlier relations has not been seamless. The White House was outraged by the kingdom’s decision to slash oil production just months after Mr. Biden’s visit. The killing of Mr. Khashoggi — Princess Reema has backed up the crown prince’s avowals of innocence — has left deep scars in the psyche of journalists and politicians. Despite legal gains for women in Saudi Arabia, the authoritarian government has worsened its crackdown on dissent.

But Princess Reema is in the room at a critical time. She was in Jeddah in mid-March for meetings with the crown prince and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on continuing plans, stalled for now because of the war in Gaza, to normalize relations between the Saudis and Israel. A week later she met in Riyadh with the crown prince and Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and a major proponent of the potential Saudi-Israel pact, to discuss U.S. defense measures for the Saudis as part of any such deal.

Ultimately the crown prince will make the decisions, and it is unclear how much influence Princess Reema has in the talks. Her greatest value to Riyadh may be as a Saudi woman promoting a new vision of the kingdom to the United States, and as a friendly face with longtime family ties in Washington soothing egos and tensions on Capitol Hill.

“I can accept that we are not always going to agree,” she said in her embassy office, located across the street from the Watergate building on a street that municipal authorities have renamed Jamal Khashoggi Way.

Her manner was approachable but regal, befitting the direct descendant that she is of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. During the interview, she pointed to a black-and-white photograph on her wall of the 1945 meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the king aboard the American cruiser U.S.S. Quincy in the Suez Canal, an encounter that set the tone for eight decades of U.S.-Saudi relations. The king expressed the strong opposition of the Arabs at the time to the creation of a Jewish state in a partitioned Palestine.

Shortly after Princess Reema arrived as ambassador to Washington, she called on her father’s old friend, Mr. Powell, for advice.

“Please remember you are not your father,” Princess Reema recalled that Mr. Powell, who died in 2021, told her. “If you try to be your father, you’re going to fail.”

“I didn’t know I needed to hear those words,” she added, “but I did.”

Prince Bandar was unique in Washington. His close ties to Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and particularly to both Presidents Bush gave him extraordinary access to the government’s highest echelons and earned him the nickname “Bandar Bush.” Charismatic, ingenious and relentless, he gave sumptuous dinners at his sprawling residence overlooking the Potomac River, and courted friends of Saudi Arabia at a beach house in Jeddah and at homes in Aspen, London and the south of France.

During his years as ambassador — 1983 to 2005 — Prince Bandar worked to keep the uneasy alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States stable through economic tensions over the kingdom’s use of oil prices to flex its power, two wars in Iraq and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

His daughter is working in a far different environment.

“There are far fewer times when our interests intersect with Saudi Arabia than the foreign policy consensus would have you believe,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who has met with Princess Reema. “I think the Saudis have pulled one over on the foreign policy consensus in Washington for the last 20 years.”

To try to counter that sentiment, Princess Reema has assiduously worked the Hill. Clad in a loose hijab with her long hair flowing out, she has canvassed the committees crucial to the Saudis, foreign relations and armed services, and built up relations with both Democrats and Republicans. She has had visiting Saudi government ministers meet with U.S. officials over Middle Eastern appetizers at her home in McLean, the same place where she grew up. She has traveled the United States, spreading the word on Saudi modernization.

Middle East experts note that the work became even more laborious after President Trump left the White House.

“Reema obviously faced a different issue set from Trump to Biden, but she kept the same approach of looking for shared interests,” said Brian H. Hook, a former senior State Department official who worked closely with her under Mr. Trump. “The Biden administration eventually found them, which only increased her role.”

After Mr. Graham threatened a “bipartisan tsunami” in 2018 against the crown prince if he were deemed to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, Princess Reema set about winning him over when she got to Washington. Mr. Graham said that at her behest — and sweetened by a $37 billion order from the kingdom for Boeing aircraft, to be assembled by workers in South Carolina — he met with the crown prince in his royal court in Riyadh last April.

“I said, ‘Thank you for buying the jets. I’d like to have a new relationship,’” the senator recalled telling the crown prince at that meeting.

During a dinner at the restaurant Cafe Milano that included Gen. David H. Petraeus, a former C.I.A. director, Princess Reema was seated near Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia. In conversation that evening, Mr. Khanna blamed the Saudis for the mounting humanitarian crisis in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He said he expected an icy retort from Princess Reema but received an invitation instead.

“I just said, ‘Maybe dinner is not the place to have a conversation, but can I come to your office?’” Princess Reema recalled. “He was very, very welcoming, very, very open.”

During their meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. Khanna said, he told the ambassador that the bombing in Yemen had to stop and the blockade of the country lifted for Saudi Arabia to avoid further eroding support among U.S. lawmakers. Princess Reema said she conveyed his message to her leaders and assured the congressman that the kingdom, too, wanted to work toward peace in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia had spent years mired in Yemen but eventually scaled back its military involvement, partly because of American pressure, and Saudi officials entered peace talks with the Houthis.

Mr. Khanna now describes Princess Reema as “one of the most thoughtful and dynamic leaders on Middle East issues.”

Born in Riyadh as the second of eight children to Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa al-Faisal, Princess Reema lived in McLean, Va., from age 7.

She graduated from George Washington University in 1999 with a degree in museum studies, worked U.S. trade fairs as a retail buyer of clothes and beauty products for a family-run fitness boutique in the kingdom, had two children, then returned to Saudi Arabia at age 30, the same year her father stepped down as ambassador. There she worked as a retail executive, a breast cancer activist and a women’s sports official for the Saudi government at a time when gyms, stadium space and public restrooms for women in athletic complexes were rare.

By the time she was named ambassador in February 2019, she was divorced. Under the kingdom’s stringent guardianship laws, she needed her father’s permission to travel to the United States.

Once in Washington she relied on former members of her father’s inner circle, like Mr. Powell, as well as a new and expanding circle of her own. She established a kinship with Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, and his wife, as well as with her counterparts from Jordan and Kuwait.

She also hired LS2 Group, a communications and lobbying firm based in Des Moines, for about $1 million per year, according to federal filings analyzed by Open Secrets, the nonpartisan research organization that tracks money in politics. It was a small but notable slice of the $56 million that the kingdom spent on lobbying, publicity and American operations last year.

LS2’s task was a more Main Street-oriented lobbying push for Saudi Arabia around the country. Starting in 2020 in emails and texts to local businesses, civic groups and journalists, LS2 pushed a narrative about Saudi Arabia’s benevolent role as a U.S. trade partner and job creator, while embracing the notions of gender equity and diversification at home.

Princess Reema was its front woman. She visited Cheyenne, Wyo., appearing in the first state to grant women the right to vote in honor of International Women’s Day. In Salt Lake City, she met with Mormon leaders, emphasizing her country’s shared values of faith and family.

She toured a Boeing aircraft assembly line in North Charleston, S.C., where she thanked workers for being part of the company that helped keep her father safe during his years piloting the F-15 — and trumpeted Saudi Arabia’s $37 billion order. Boeing, in turn, presented her with a model Saudi airliner that she keeps prominently displayed in her office.

“This job is not just about meeting the very important senator; it’s about these people,” Princess Reema said.

Today, as the Israel-Hamas war enters its seventh month, Princess Reema has assured key lawmakers and Biden administration officials that diplomatic relations with Israel are still within reach. But Saudi Arabia will not sign on to such a pact without concrete commitments, she said, on the Palestinian issue.

“The kingdom is very, very firm,” she said. “We are happy to not just recognize Israel, but do the work that’s necessary. But there has to be a two-state solution, and it cannot be one that’s open-ended,” she said. “Right now, it has to be a finite, definitive path, with very specific dates.”

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