Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and Saudi royal family member Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud made her first visit to Utah in early March 2020, just a year or so after her appointment to the post when she became the first woman diplomat for her country.
On her debut trip to Utah, Reema's mission was to meet and engage with the state's business, government and faith leaders, hoping to launch relationships that would lead to new collaborations and connections between the kingdom and the Beehive State.
But just days after the visit, the world was effectively shut down by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the beginning of a period of global isolation, economic turmoil and a race to address the unprecedented public health crisis.
Last week, Reema was back in Utah, rekindling efforts first begun before the pandemic and, this time around, connecting with an even broader group of stakeholders. Her mission of international outreach and diplomacy comes alongside the challenges posed by Saudi Arabia's authoritarian rule of government and a human rights record that sparked widespread concern.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said those issues were on his mind, along with a deep interest in finding common ground with the Saudi diplomat, when he met with the ambassador during her three-day stay in Utah. Cox praised Reema's forthrightness in speaking directly to those problems, including the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.
"Certainly, we know there have been some very difficult issues between the U.S. and the Saudi kingdom and we didn't shy away from that in any way," Cox said. "It's something that we have to try to navigate. I think we should hold others accountable for bad acts and wrong acts but at the same time you don't influence change by completely disengaging."
Cox lauded Reema's stance as an agent of change in Saudi Arabia, noting her work on a broad range of women's rights and equity issues in her home country. He noted Reema is the perfect representative with which to build collaborations on shared interests, and said he and the ambassador had a wide-ranging discussion about where the collective goals of Utah and Saudi Arabia intersect.
"We have economic interests in common that allow us to see each other ... and these recognitions are how we start to find ways to build partnerships," Cox said.
I think we should hold others accountable for bad acts and wrong acts but at the same time you don't influence change by completely disengaging.
–Gov. Spencer Cox
Cox said two areas with great potential are the energy sector and post-secondary education as an economic driver.
"Ambassador Reema is very interested in working to build entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia," Cox said. "We have a long history of that in Utah which is directly connected to our education system. And we talked about ways to better connect Saudi students with education opportunities here in Utah."
In a one-hour meeting with the Deseret News editorial board and reporters, Reema praised Utah's success in building one of the leading state economies in the U.S. and highlighted Saudi Arabia's interest in finding Utah partnerships.
"What could we do with Utah?" Reema asked before sharing a few ideas. "We have a very similar footprint, as a nation that is desert-based. Utah has a very similar topography. Your natural resources match ours but your need to develop also matches ours. In that need to develop, we're talking now to companies that do manufacturing and asking if they'd be interested in coming and partnering with the kingdom and setting up manufacturing. We're talking about new forms of energy and new technology.
"We know that Utah has a thriving entrepreneurial environment and you are very welcoming to entrepreneurs. And we want to be, too."
Reema said the Saudi government has been working to revamp its domestic framework in hopes of attracting a broader international business presence. Those changes include regulatory exemptions aiming to bolster companies working in the innovation and advanced technology realm as well as capital incentives.
"We feel that spirit of ingenuity that Utah has to thrive is something we have too," Reema said. "And so it felt very natural to come back here and expand on those conversations."
Potential perks for companies looking to expand into Saudi Arabia, the second-largest country in the Arab world with a population of about 35 million residents and a $1 trillion gross domestic product, include a new, streamlined visa process; financial incentives for new manufacturing facilities; the elimination of a former requirement to partner with an established Saudi firm; and "white glove" assistance from the Saudi Ministry of Investment to help get new foreign ventures off the ground.
Reema, whose father, Bandar bin Sultan, served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. for over 20 years, noted her diplomatic mission to Utah is driven by the desire to deepen the kingdom's long-running relationship with the U.S. by making broader, grassroots connections.
"I don't want our relationship to be simply political. I don't want our relationship to be based simply on defense," Reema said. "It's got to be based on people coming together, finding shared impacts and working together."
We know that Utah has a thriving entrepreneurial environment and you are very welcoming to entrepreneurs. And we want to be, too.
–Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud
Reema is an avid skier who grew up and attended college in the U.S. She is also a member of the International Olympic Committee Women in Sports Commission and toured the Park City Olympic training facilities while she was in Utah. Reema said she had a chance to watch Ukrainian winter sports athletes working out during her visit and is interested in partnering with U.S. Olympic officials to create opportunities for Saudi winter athletes who currently train in Europe.
"You have magnificent facilities here," Reema said. "And, what's so interesting to me about how the U.S. trains other athletes is, you train them as well as you train your own. You look at the individual and you invest in individual development regardless of where they come from.
"I think that spirit of kindness and healthy competitive development doesn't really exist in the rest of the world, but it exists here."
Reema also highlighted interest in finding Utah partners in renewable energy development, an effort that she said is driving billions in investment from Saudi Arabian petroleum powerhouses like Aramco. Reema said the investments are an acknowledgment that, while petroleum assets currently drive a third of the Saudi Arabian economy, global environmental impacts require that fossil fuels be supplanted by cleaner energy sources.
"We're moving forward aggressively (on renewable energy development)," Reema said. "Not because someone told us to do it but because it's the right thing to do for the environment. The right thing to do for the economy."
Reema also touched base with Utah health care providers, including a meeting with executives from Utah-based health services giant Intermountain Healthcare.
Sue Robel, Intermountain Healthcare region president and system chief nursing executive, said she and her colleagues met with Reema and discussed findings from Intermountain's population studies and genetic mapping as well as its affordable medications programs and response to COVID-19.
"Meeting with Princess Reema and her delegation was delightful and insightful," Robel said in a statement. "We are excited about our relationship, and we look forward to continuing conversation and leading innovation that helps our communities — both in the United States and in Saudi Arabia — receive high-quality care and medicine.
"It is clear we share a common mission to ensure our community members live healthy and fulfilling lives."
World Trade Center Utah helped coordinate opportunities for Reema and her team to meet with numerous Utah business representatives on her visit and the group sees a wealth of potential in near- and long-term commercial collaborations and partnerships.
Stephen Lefevre, World Trade Center Utah chief of staff and director of strategic and foreign affairs, said there was an immense level of interest from Utah businesses in hearing about opportunities to work with Saudi Arabian officials on expanding international business ventures.
"There were so many requests from interested businesses that we weren't able to fill them all," Lefevre said. "Princess Reema makes a compelling case for collaboration opportunities across a broad spectrum of sectors. We're continuing to build a deep relationship with the ambassador and her team and I believe we're going to see big developments in partnerships connecting Utah and Saudi Arabia."