WASHINGTON – On Nov. 19, Saudi Arabia’s glamorous ambassador to the United States – Princess Reema bint Bandar – held a private Zoom session with an unusual audience.
No members of Congress or White House officials. No State Department officials. No reporters.
Instead, the kingdom’s ambassador spoke to a group of Philadelphia business leaders, students, educators and other local residents interested in foreign affairs. It was billed as a “candid discussion” with Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador and hosted by Philadelphia’s World Affairs Council, a nonprofit educational group.
“There was a huge message of change and progress,” said Lauren Swartz, president of the council, who led the Zoom session with Reema. “That is … not much reported in the newspapers here.”
The Philadelphia meeting appears to be part of a new Saudi government lobbying strategy – launched in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside a Saudi consulate in 2018 – focused on reaching out to state and local officials from New Orleans to Anchorage.
The pitch: Saudi Arabia is a pivotal global player in the midst of a transformation on women’s rights.
“They’ve made a calculated decision that says, ‘You know, we’re really losing the battle here (in Washington). We’ve got to take this battle out into America,'” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit foreign policy research group.