Saturday, January 27, 2007

Prince Turki Al-Faisal: We are not your friends

I recently attended a speech by Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud. I expected to be told about the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, and some positive spin on the future of Saudi-American cooperation. What I was left with was elitist whining and an even greater distrust of the Saudi-family which rules over most of Arabia.

The speech started off well. The Prince encouraged the 100-plus Saudi students to continue their studies (3 of them were women). He then praised his Kingdom's exchange program with the United States which has subsided over 12,000 Saudi students in American university mostly for engineering programs.

The main point of the speech was public diplomacy. al-Faisal said the era of the diplomat was over. He went on to state that we all conducted diplomacy and that the exchange program was a perfect opportunity for Saudis to learn about America.

Things turned towards the worse when it came to terrorism and suspicion. The prince repeatedly said American suspicion of Arabs and Muslims was based on such a small minority that it was practically unreasonable. He related the weekly calls for Jihad in Saudi-funded mosques to "bigoted" calls by evangelicals. He derided the negative depictions of Muslims in Western media saying it was pushing back relations. No word on Western depictions in Arab media.

The issue of Wahhabism came up also. The prince denied Wahhabism existed claiming it was merely restoring traditional Islam (this is a long running debate). He mentioned how Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab needed Saudi military help "to meet the challenges of the opposition." (Why can we not have reformers like Erasmus? One may not agree with the proposed reforms without the fear of dying with Erasmus-like people.) The prince claimed suicide bombings and "declaration of Jihad" was counter to al-Wahhab's teachings and al-Wahhab "would declare Jihad" against people like bin Laden (follow that logic).

Catholicgauze even had the chance to ask a question. I asked if there was a program which would enable Americans to visit Saudi Arabia. I was hoping that the "exchange" would be somewhere near equal. The prince replied that the Kingdom is "working on it" and took pride in the fact there are "slightly less than forty Americans" studying in the kingdom. But then he encouraged the audience to visit Saudi Arabia. He did not mention; however, that if we were ever seen in Mecca or Medina we would be killed.

A final bit was a diplomatic faceoff between a Shia Iraqi and the prince. The Iraqi wanted to know what the Kingdom was doing to weapons, money, and Jihadi movement from Saudi Arabia into Iraq. The prince replied that anything which leaves the Kingdom has to be documented. This means one of two things 1) That the Saudis are incapable of controlling their own borders and are a security risk with their incompetence or 2) Those in charge of border security allow the flow of tools of death into Iraq and are a security risk that way.

Catholicgauze walked out of the theater with a feminist professor. Both of us agreed that the speech left a sour taste in our mouth. Half-truths and things left unsaid made us worry about the role Saudi Arabia will play in the future.

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