Fatimah Baeshen ’02 Sociology was recently appointed as the first female spokesperson for the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States. Here, Baeshen discusses how her time at UMass shaped her professional journey and the opportunities and challenges she faces in her new role.
Could you describe your professional path and how it led you to become the first female spokesperson for the Royal Saudi Arabian Embassy?
I loved studying sociology at UMass Amherst. Sociology is such an expansive discipline that provides an insightful platform to dissect the impact of various institutions on society at large, be it family, marriage, or government, which can be influential factors within any given social setting. Many wondered what I would do with this degree. I never worried about it. I just enjoyed understanding it as a discipline.
A third of the way into my 16-year career, I pivoted to socioeconomic development work, initially with international NGOs then later within the public sector in the Arabian Gulf. As a strategist developing frameworks to address some of society's most pressing issues, such as youth (un)employment or women empowerment, I always fell back on my degree. Social solutions cannot be sustainably developed without the inclusion of pivotal societal institutions.
Regardless of the industry, I have always approached work with curious intellectualism, even in my current role, and it is a testament to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's new leadership to appoint an average person like myself—who is not a career diplomat or from the upper echelons of Saudi society—to serve in a diplomatic capacity in a way that is still true to my core as an aspiring intellectual.
I was working at a think tank in Washington, DC when I received a call from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia here in the United States, and when I met with His Royal Highness Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, it was clear that His Royal Highness (HRH) wanted to approach the American public in an innovative way. I did not hesitate to join His team.
As the Embassy Spokesperson, I support His Royal Highnesses' vision, which is to be the Ambassador to the United States at large, not just Washington, DC. That means engaging policy-makers, the business community, universities and students, and of course, the media and press. My role is a supplemental function to achieving His Royal Highness's broader vision of engaging the American public, specifically in the area of media and press.
What opportunities and challenges do you encounter as the Saudi Arabian Embassy spokesperson?
My main role is to interface and engage with the press and media. Journalists are fascinating; I appreciate their work. It reminds me of my own appreciation for curiosity and getting down to the bottom line of issues or stories.
The opportunity that I most enjoy is helping to inject the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's voice into the narrative. HRH the Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud always says that the Kingdom has a great story to tell. I am honored to help share it.
What is challenging is that often times, short articles and quotes do not afford the space for contextual nuance, which is often needed when genuinely understanding a society. But, that is circumvented by keeping other dialogue channels open for contextual conversations with press that explain important information, etc. The constant deadlines that journalists are under to publish can be intense, but thankfully deadlines and intensity motivate me, so I find it energizing!
Did you always have an interest in foreign affairs?
I have always been interested in helping explain Saudi society to Americans. I, like so many other Saudis who lived, studied, and worked in the US, am a by-product of the long-standing Saudi-US relationship, so I am blessed to know both cultures, peoples, and societies innately well.
I think halfway through my career I stopped focusing on achieving roles or positions and more so focused on serving a purpose, which has lead me to the foreign affairs and diplomatic arena. I continue to use my sociology degree more than ever because I am explaining Saudi society, which is, like all societies, a composite of various institutions.
As a woman in this position, what unique challenges do you encounter? What has surprised you most?
What I found most surprising was the narrative from the American media that I was offered this role because I am a woman, as an attempt for the Kingdom to clean up its image. Nothing can be further from the truth. HRH the Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman's first words to me were, "You are not here because you are a woman. We had a pool of candidates for this position." I assumed I got the role because of my work experience, so when I started to do public appearances and this question came up, it surprised me.
The level of support I received from the people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, conveyed on social media, was overwhelming. I was so humbled. And, finally, I can't express how supportive the internal team has been in helping me to fulfill the objectives of this role; especially HRH the Ambassador along with all my other colleagues in the Embassy's Communication Department. Ultimately, I am the end of a pipeline of effort from an entire team of people. I could not do my job effectively without everyone else.
Looking forward, do you see opportunity for women in other government or political roles in Saudi Arabia?
His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud announced Vision 2030 in April of 2016, which is a long-term economic diversification strategy for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, underpinned by social and cultural reform.
Part of the targets laid out in the Vision are to increase women's participation in the workforce. In line with the Vision and shortly after my appointment as Spokesperson for the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, the Shoura Council, the Kingdom's Parliament, discussed a recommendation to review the opportunity to increase Saudi women's participation in diplomatic roles globally.
We are already doing so much domestically, from chairing the Saudi Stock Exchange and Airports, being scientists, etc. I am optimistic there will be more opportunities to expand in roles globally.
What advice can you offer students or recent graduates interested in similar work?
I started in sociology and ended-up in diplomacy. Retrospectively, all of my experiences now, 16 years into my career, make sense. I never pursued a straight trajectory; more so my interests which lead me to a purpose—albeit sinuously.
So, as cliché as it sounds; three elements have always driven my career: good-intentions, passion, and hard work. If you can't connect the dots early on, keep going— they will connect eventually. It might not be a linear path, but if you keep these three elements at your core, the dots will eventually connect into a magnificent piece of work, literally, and you will end up where you are meant to be. I truly believe that.
By Samm Smith '08 via the UMass Amherst Alumni Association