Over the past few years, the faces of Gulf power have significantly rejuvenated, while political and diplomatic power remain highly personalized. First, in some Gulf Arab States, leaders are much younger than in the past: Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani succeeded his father, Hamad bin Khalifa, at age 33 in 2013, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud started his meteoric rise to power at age 29 in 2015. Second, though not less important, recent official representatives posted in Gulf Arab States’ traditional partners (the US, France, and the UK) exhibit fresh looks, including young — and increasingly women — ambassadors. The most recent examples include Reema bint Bandar and her brother Khaled bin Bandar, respectively appointed as Saudi Ambassadors to the US and Saudi Ambassador to the UK in 2019, as well as Hend Al Otaiba, appointed as UAE Ambassador to France in 2021. Of course, this remarkable trend is not completely new: for instance, Hend’s brother, Yousef Al Otaiba, became UAE Ambassador to the US aged 34 in 2008. Nowadays, this accelerated trend mirrors two interrelated phenomena. First, Gulf Arab States’ diplomacy has been particularly active since the 2011 Arab uprisings started reshaping the Middle East; second, the shifting global context considerably helped enhancing their economic power and associated political influence on the international stage.
New Ambassadors for the Young Nations of the Gulf
The new generation flying the Emirati, Qatari, and Saudi flags in London, Paris, and Washington D.C. presents an accurate image of their countries’ current demographic and sociological landscapes. The Gulf Arab states, like many others within the broader Middle East and North Africa region, have particularly young populations, prompting their leadership to launch new institutions and initiatives focused on — and directed at — the youth. In the UAE, the Federal Youth Authority (created in April 2018) qualifies the youth as people under 35 years old – accounting for about half of the country’s population. In Qatar, the Ministry of Culture and Sports became the Ministry of Sports and Youth in a 2021 Cabinet reshuffle and is now drafting Qatar’s first national youth strategy. A year prior, the UAE had merged its youth sector with the Ministry of Culture in a Cabinet reshuffle, an entity now led by two women: Noura Al Kaabi (Minister of Culture and Youth) and Shamma Al Mazrui (Minister of State for Youth Affairs). This top-down attention to youth policies and women’s presence in diplomacy is not surprising: there is a greater number of women than men in higher education, and women generally outperform men. The new Gulf diplomats in France, the UK, and the US thus seem to be a perfect representation of their bulging nations. This new generation of diplomats also sheds light on the globalization of their countries’ youth education. For instance, Princess Reema grew up in Washington DC and went to George Washington University. Prince Khaled was born in Paris and attended Eton, Oxford, and Sandhurst in the UK before attending Tufts University in the US. Hend Al Otaiba pursued her undergraduate degree in London before her two masters at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi and the UAE National Defense College respectively.
Masters of Branding: How New Ambassadors (Re)Shape their Countries’ Image Abroad
Against this background, brand-new ambassadors are also ideal agents of state-branding. In this respect, the media coverage around their appointment is noteworthy. Princess Reema was notably covered in the Washingtonian, a trendy magazine self-declared as “The website that Washington lives by”. Meanwhile, Hend Al Otaiba was the focus of a piece in Vogue Arabia noting her dedication to women’s empowerment and soft power applied “with quiet dignity”. This kind of publicity is not entirely new: for instance, Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE Ambassador to Russia from 2009 to 2017 and to France from 2017 to 2021, was invited on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah in April 2017. Khaleeji diplomacy’s new faces master the art of hyper-connectivity and social media, as demonstrated by Princess Reema’s and Hend Al Otaiba’s presence and followers on Twitter. Capitalizing on their personal image and media accounts, Gulf Arab States’ young ambassadors also play a significant role in spreading governments’ messages abroad, thus strengthening global outreach. In this framework, the narratives put forth by the two ′diplomatic socialites` include the idea that “the UAE is writing the future in the feminine form” and that Saudi Arabia celebrates women’s achievements and supports sustainable environmental development. Similarly, Prince Khalid bin Bandar stated in a talk at the Oxford Union that his government “has never, ever claimed a religious leadership”, echoing the Saudi leadership’s efforts to tune down Wahhabism’s centrality through cultural initiatives, such as the establishment of a “Founding Day” and a new national narrative. This effort is hardly surprising: state-branding has contributed to Qatar's and the UAE’s rising power since the 1990s, with Saudi Arabia catching up more recently under Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership. Not only is this a global game they have become quite skillful at, but it is also one they need more than ever.
Sales Representatives for their Princes’ Visions and Power
The appointment of Gulf powers’ new diplomatic faces in Western capitals, while showcasing societal transformation and maximizing soft power, can also be seen as an attempt by the Princes of the Gulf to rekindle the flame with their traditional partners amidst a rough patch. This rings particularly true for the special relation between Saudi Arabia and the US. The American magazine Politico indeed called Princess Reema “the woman trying to mend U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia”, against the backdrop of the war in Yemen, the detention of activists (including women), and Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder. Princess Reema’s predecessor in Washington D.C. was Khalid bin Salman, who is not only Mohammed bin Salman’s brother but was the one who called the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, asking him to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was later assassinated. Princess Rema’s assignment as ambassador seems primarily aimed at restoring the reputation of her country, but also of Mohammed bin Salman; for example, in April 2022, she highlighted the Crown Prince’s “remarkable role” in elevating the status of Saudi women. Similarly, the UAE’s military adventurism in the region since 2014 has received mounting criticism in Western capitals, with public outcry pushing to halt arms sales to Abu Dhabi as well as Riyadh. The new Emirati appointee in Paris could be viewed as an attempt to soften the military-centered image the country has gained in recent years, shifting it to other policy dimensions. The Emirati newspaper The National noted that Hend Al Otaiba is not only a fluent French speaker and strategic communications expert but that she “has spent her career promoting the UAE to the wider world, either through arts and culture or through public relations and diplomacy”. Nonetheless, as has been most visible since 2017, the bilateral relation between France and the UAE also continues to rely on interpersonal ties, especially between Mohammed bin Zayed and Emmanuel Macron who, to a certain extent, share a hyper-personalized and Jovian leadership style.
The causes and calculi underpinning the trend of Arab Gulf states’ young leaders and diplomats may be a combination of some, if not all, the suggestions above. In any case, an important lesson that can be drawn from this phenomenon is that international relations of the Gulf are set to continue to be hyper-personalized despite rejuvenation, drawing their global partners into this power dynamic.