Joey Bunch reported Saturday in Colorado Politics that the Colorado Business Roundtable is hosting a July 8 “online discussion on women’s rights around the world with a panel of women in the state’s government, academia, business and philanthropy ...” Importantly, this teleconference panel will feature special guest Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, serving as ambassador from Saudi Arabia to the United States since late last year.
I won’t be surprised if CBR takes heat for inviting the ambassador from an authoritarian regime in the Middle East — and Saudi in particular — even if she is a woman. As Bunch reports, Saudi Arabia has a troubled history of human rights abuses, particularly toward women, and has been accused of killing the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi at the Crown Prince’s direction. With a record like this, how could a major Colorado business group give the ambassador such an invitation?
For several reasons, this is actually a great move on CBR’s part.
First, it’s important to understand the complex regional dynamics at play, and we cannot divorce Saudi Arabia from those complexities. Last year, I coauthored a report with Samuel Lourie and produced a minidocumentary for the Millennial Policy Center focused on the Trump administration’s Middle Eastern policy and its economic peace plan. The video featured our lead project advisor, the Hon. Sam H. Zakhem, former Ambassador to Bahrain.
As we point out, the Middle East will almost always feature predominantly dictatorial regimes. Few democratic societies exist there, and there are even fewer definitive examples of liberal democracy. Moreover, the gravest threat to U.S. interests and security in the Middle East is unquestionably Iran.
Reality is clear that the region will be dominated by regimes that do not and will not represent American values. We must take things as they are, not as we want them to be. The relevant policy question is thus: Which countries will usually advance U.S. interests in the region?
In my live interview last week with Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the kingdom’s D.C. embassy, which is overseen by Princess Reema, he noted the close relationship that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia in several key areas, most especially Iran. “The United States and Saudi Arabia are fully aligned in pushing back against Iran’s malign behavior in the region,” Nazer told me, calling America his country’s “most important strategic partner and ally.”
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is a critical Mideast partner for the U.S. It is Iran’s most formidable regional adversary and generally supports our objectives in the region. To expect that America’s partners will only and in every way align with America’s values is misguided at best and naïve at worst.
With those dynamics in mind, we must also realize that Princess Reema is the first female envoy from the kingdom to any country. In that way, she epitomizes the opening up of Saudi society spearheaded in recent years by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salmad (MBS) under his “Vision 2030” agenda. At 34, MBS is himself a millennial, and while an imperfect leader, he embodies my generation’s broad desire for social change.
The World Bank noted in January that Saudi Arabia has made the greatest gains worldwide for women in the workplace since 2017. That includes expansions in women’s mobility, sexual harassment and retirement. Women can access greater educational opportunities, are finally allowed to drive themselves — and without a male in the vehicle — and they are more often permitted higher-level work positions.
I recently met an Ethiopian immigrant to America named Sam. A passionate American patriot and entrepreneur, Sam spent almost his entire life growing up in Saudi Arabia before coming to Colorado 20 years ago. One of the things he told me is that today’s Saudi Arabia is “very different” from the country he left behind two decades ago. It is far freer, especially for women, and he is encouraged by the progress.
Without question, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go in promoting women’s rights and self-advancement. For example, its male guardianship system should be abolished, not just curtailed.
But the strides the kingdom has made in just a few years have been considerable. Indeed, if ever there is a prominent woman on the world stage who can speak about the advancement of women’s rights, it’s Princess Reema. Kudos to an important Colorado business institution for recognizing this.