The challenging road ahead for the new Saudi ambassador
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Ever since the U.S.-Saudi relationship began 84 years ago, 10 Saudi ambassadors to the U.S. have represented Saudi interests to Capitol Hill. The latest one was appointed recently, and has already taken the post of highest ranking Saudi diplomat in Washington, D.C.

As we’ve witnessed with President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s recent visit to the kingdom, It is clear that Riyadh allots great importance to its relationship with the United States, and by extension, its embassy in Washington. The Saudi embassy is arguably one of the most important in the world, especially considering the historic, strategic, security and military relationship between the two countries. Furthermore, because the United States was and still is the world's superpower in every respect.

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Even though the Riyadh Summit represented an official reset to the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the onus will largely be upon the new ambassador to keep the enthusiasm and renewed optimism from eroding in the face of inevitable political turbulence.

 

To that effect, the ambassador has recently expressed that there is a “huge improvement in the Saudi-U.S. relationship” under Trump’s administration. Despite its time-tested resilience, this relationship is facing myriad challenges and difficulties, much like any other. These challenges will undoubtedly find their way to the desk of the new Saudi ambassador. They all revolve around two major challenges: one caused by Washington, and another by Riyadh.

The challenge created by Washington is the infamous Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill, which was signed into law in September of last year. The law is considered by Riyadh and by most of the world's capitals as a violation of international sovereignty and immunity. This view is shared by many members of the American political fabric itself, as this law sets a precedent that will have enormous implications for the United States.

The U.S. has maintained an expanded global influence, and its strategic global military presence may introduce the possibility of prosecuting and undermining its service members and security personnel around the world. As such, the law may irrevocably cause a breach of U.S. relations with its allies.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is not only with this law but with its consequences on the basis and roots of the relationship between Riyadh and Washington. In my view, Riyadh believes that this law serves only the parties hostile to both countries, especially since Washington relies heavily on Riyadh with regards to sharing sensitive intelligence, as well as working on high-level security projects to counterterrorism in all its forms, such as the recently inaugurated Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideologies. Most importantly, there is no conclusive evidence to prove Saudi involvement in the horrific events of Sept. 11.

The challenge that Riyadh has created for itself is its institutional neglect for many years to a crucially important aspect: reaching out to American society and public opinion. Quite simply, American citizens are no longer as indifferent to foreign affairs as they were in the past. From the the abundance of online information, to the social media revolution, the average U.S. citizen is now inundated with U.S. foreign policy issues.

Every civil, cultural, human rights and media organization has used every facet of technology and social media to communicate their mission to the American citizen, which has not only made the average American more politically aware but more politically influential than ever before, especially with regards to their country's foreign policies. In other words, the American citizen has become the most powerful political card in the deck of American politics.

Many members of Congress are well aware of the strategic importance of the relationship between Riyadh and Washington, but they simply cannot pass any law that favors the relationship for fear of alienating their political base. It is as if congressmen are saying: “Saudis, please serve yourselves in our communities so that we are better able to serve you.” Riyadh has long been keen on reaching out to political elites, whether they’re from the executive or legislative branches, yet the increasingly important high-level cultural communication strategies with the American people have long been neglected.

That said, none of this absolves Saudi Arabia of its responsibility to reform many social and legal issues internally. However, it is clear that in the last two years there have been fundamental and increasingly rapid reforms in both legal and economic affairs, none of which have been communicated properly to the American or global society. This is entirely due to an unholy combination of incompetence and embarrassing lack of effort, which is only exacerbated by not empowering highly talented yet underutilized Saudi cadres that can foster cultural understanding and artistic exchange between the Saudi and the American public.

The subject has nothing to do with elaborate, exhorbitantly expensive public relations campaigns. Rather, it has everything to do with introducing Saudi Arabia to the American public by drawing their attention to the Kingdom’s positions at every level in a civilized and objective way through Saudi’s own citizens.

Shortly after attending a conference in Washington, one U.S. political scientist told me in rather blunt terms, "Where exactly are you Saudis? The only people that speak for you are non-Saudi employees of companies that don’t employ a single Saudi. It’s as if you’re ghosts."

In any case, the new ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman, must deal with these challenges in an innovative and unconventional way, especially since he has tremendous support behind him. Being the King’s son, he is also the brother of the spearhead of change and reform in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The new ambassador is a young man with administrative, consulting and military experience, and has cultivated a deep interest in American society by virtue of his previous residency in Mississippi, Nevada and Washington, DC. As a 29-year-old, Prince Khalid is also a prime candidate for the Saudi leadership to represent Saudi youth, the largest demographic in the Kingdom, with more than 70 percent of the Saudi people under the age of 30.

In my view, if Washington reevaluates the JASTA bill, and if Riyadh deals with its chronic lack of civilized, well thought-out communication with the American society, then there will be virtually no limit to the prosperity of the Saudi-U.S. relationship at every level, especially the economic one.

Salman Al-Ansari is the founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC). You can find him on Twitter at @Salansar1.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.