An event attended by Judith Barnett, printed in the Chicago Tribune April 24, 2005. Judith was invited to Saudi Arabia for an `open and honest dialogue,’ an American woman finds unofficial, private talks focus on cultural change.
`On behalf of the Chamber, I would like to welcome participants to this forum from both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of Arabia,” stated our bright moderator. I wondered briefly whether, as a member of the American delegation, this Saudi-American interactive dialogue might be more than I bargained for.
I was one of about two-dozen Americans invited to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, to participate in discussions that would “create an open and honest dialogue between Americans and Saudis.” We came from a spectrum of backgrounds, religions and political views and we varied from neoconservative Washington columnists to graduate students and lawyers and one very perceptive homemaker from New Jersey. What we had in common was that we had no idea how we had been selected to participate, and we were clueless as to what we would be asked to do.
When we arrived at the hotel in Jiddah, I checked in and requested directions to the health club.
“You will need to receive those directions next year,” stated the young man behind the desk. While acknowledging my jet lag, I nonetheless was confused by his statement and asked again for directions.
“Women cannot use our health club, but we are building a new facility which will certainly be completed by next year,” he said. As I took the elevator to my room, I had a vision of filling out the width of an abaya if I had to wait until next year.
Dinner on the first night was at the compound of the U.S. consul general, which three months before had been a killing field. A Saudi group linked to Al Qaeda threw explosives at two gates of the sprawling consulate in December, had a shootout with the guards, took hostages, and in the end, killed five trusted employees of the consulate.
We were graciously welcomed by the poised and dignified consul general, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who thanked us repeatedly for coming to Jiddah. Despite an interesting dinner, we were still on an unknown mission.
Opening speeches the first morning echoed the e-mailed invitation. The objective of the program was to gain perspective, to discuss misconceptions and to collectively foster greater understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States. We were advised that discussions would center on religion, government and the media.
The group was divided into smaller segments, and each table included men and women from both countries, about equally divided. The Saudi delegation included bankers and doctors, business people and media representatives, academics and engineers. As a female American lawyer, I knew that I would not meet a Saudi counterpart because Saudi women are forbidden to practice law. Nor would I meet a Saudi engineer or politician who happened to be female.
The Saudi women who did participate were extremely articulate, worldly, Western-trained and exceptional: They had jobs and careers. Women account for 5 5 percent of Saudi college graduates and only 4.8 percent of the workforce, so these participants were among the chosen. And most of them would say, quietly at dinners, that they hoped that their sons and daughters would experience a different Saudi Arabia.
The issue of change was evident in every private discussion. There were markedly different opinions throughout both delegations. Some Saudis accepted and understood the need for their government to formally approve many intimate aspects of their lives, e.g. some prescription medications, marriages to non-Saudis, approval for their children to attend private schools, various business ventures and some travel abroad.
Others believed that the time had come for Saudis to have far more control over their personal decisions. A few participants thought the restriction on driving for women was a protection for their daughters, whereas others believed that it was a fundamental and calculated manner of controlling every movement of female society. (No one discussed the controversy caused when the Saudi rally driver who had won the Dubai International Rally for Women earlier in the year counseled Saudi women that it is more important to gain full participation in their society than to drive.)
The observations by our Saudi colleagues on American society were thought provoking.
“The American people are as religious as we are,” one participant said. “If that is not the lesson of the 2004 election, I do not know what is.”
The difference is, another observed, Americans are adamant that religion be very private, whereas “we are proud that not only is the infrastructure of our government built on our religion and its moral values, but we openly share our religious practices with all members of society.”
I realized again that the difference between our countries and cultures was not just about religion, but about the role of the individual, priv acy rights and government intervention.
The trip proved to be far more than a dialogue. I headed home believing that if political, legal, and economic reform was left to the people, not only to the leadership of Saudi Arabia, the world would know a very different place. I was reminded of the adage that government is far too important to be left to the politicians.
The Middle East is not ready for, perhaps does not even want, government by town halls or the type of democracy that American politicians may try to mold there. Nevertheless, it is certainly prepared for some form of government by and for all of its people.
American foreign policy has appeared, at least to the people of the Middle East, to be promoting a one-size-fits-all democracy. The Bush administration further uses the you-are-with-us-or-against-us approach to forming other governments. Our government needs to do far more listening, participate in many more dialogues, to understand how the peop le of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Iraq want their governments to operate.
We need to provide incentives–trade, investment, education–to encourage those who are now in charge to include more participation by a larger group of people, rich and poor, male and female, young and old. The emerging institutions, organizations and processes must be left to those who know their countries best, not us.
This trip to the kingdom reaffirmed my belief that I will not be buying a T-shirt labeled “the United States of Arabia” in the Riyadh airport anytime soon.