Saudi Arabia appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s full younger brother as deputy defence minister on Saturday and named a princess as the kingdom’s first woman ambassador to the United States.
The appointments, published in state news agency SPA, follow Riyadh’s efforts to overcome a global outcry over last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, which damaged relations with key Western allies.
The elevation of Prince Khalid bin Salman, a son of the king, also 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.
Prince Mohammed has been defence minister since 2015, when he intervened against Yemen’s Iranian-aligned Houthis in a war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and pushed the impoverished country to the brink of famine.
Prince Khalid, a former fighter pilot, had been ambassador to Washington for less than two years. He was heavily criticised for denying that Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the crown prince, had been killed in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate before the authorities ultimately acknowledged the murder.
The new envoy, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, is the daughter of a former long-time ambassador to the United States.
She had a career in the private sector before joining the kingdom’s General Sports Authority where she championed women’s participation in sports and focused on increasing women’s empowerment.
Princess Reema becomes ambassador as Saudi Arabia is opening up and granting women more freedoms, but also amid heightened tensions with Washington, a key security and economic partner.
The U.S. Treasury sanctioned 17 Saudis in October over the Khashoggi murder, and more recently the Congress has pushed to blame the crown prince for the killing and end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Trump has said he wants Washington to stand by the crown prince, despite a CIA assessment that he likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing – which the Saudis deny.
Riyadh has also come under fire for its human rights record including the detention and alleged torture of around a dozen women activists, most of whom had campaigned for the right to drive, which was granted last year.
Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University, said Prince Khalid’s loss of credibility in Washington over the Khashoggi murder meant he could no longer be an effective ambassador.
“Appointing Princess Reema as his replacement is an excellent public relations move,” he said. “A woman representing the country that just gave women the right to drive.”