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Left: A 2005 photo of the ambassador.
Source: BBC News profile
Right: K-State President Jon Wefald welcomes the Saudi ambassador to the USA, HRH Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud (click on photo to enlarge)
Source: Kansas State Collegian, photo by Christopher Hanewinckel

Today, K-State hosted a visit by the ambassador from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the USA, Prince Turki Al-Faisal. The K-State Collegian covered the talk in this article.

A grandson of the first king of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and the son of the late King Faisal, the third son of ibn Saud, Prince Turki Al-Faisal was Saudi foreign intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001 and ambassador to the UK and ROI from 2002 to July, 2005. He has been the Saudi ambassador to the US since July, 2005, and first met with President Bush in that capacity last fall.

Prince Turki during his talk:

Some fine antiques from the Saudi embassy, at the K-State Union exhibit:

banazir at the K-State Union exhibit:

I was invited to the talk by Waleed Al-Jandal, one of my Ph.D. students and a member of the Saudi student association; the president of the association (Mohammed Al-Anazi) is also a Ph.D. student in computer science.

The prologue: Images of Saudi Arabia. The ambassador's talk was prefaced by a 15-minute video called Images of Saudi Arabia, featuring everything from footage of Riyadh's shopping centers and parks, to the traditional sword dance (ardha), once a battle ritual and now performed at festivals, to desert scenery and ocean life. You don't think "anemones" when you think "Arabia" - or at least I didn't, until I saw the video. Videos on the big screen and photographs at the exhibit after the talk also depicted scenes from the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Madinah (Medina).

The talk: History of Arabia. The talk proper (which lasted from 12:00 to 12:25) focused on the history of Saudi Arabia since the eighteenth century, in particular its seventy-five years of unified statehood as a monarchy.

Follow-up Q&A. The ambassador spent a goodly amount of time answering questions. Over the course of 25 minutes, he fielded seven, on:

  • Criticisms in international circles of the Saudi government's "aggressive promotion of Wahhabi Islam [the state-sanctioned Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movement prevalent in Saudi Arabia]"

  • Stuart Levy's advocacy of a U.S. federal charity commission, to oversee political lobbying and special interest contributions from overseas businesses and governments (including those of Saudi Arabia), and the expected time frame of this commission's formation - this question was asked by a new female Rhodes scholar from K-State

  • The educational system of Saudi Arabia in relation to that of the USA - the ambasssador replied that the grades are in direct correspondence with those of kindergarten, primary, and secondary school in the US

  • Recognition of the state of Israel - the ambassador recapped the recent (2002) proposal put forth by King Abdullah, then Crown Prince and de facto king, and ratified by the Arab League; it "calls for full withdrawal in return for fully normalized relations with the whole Arab world" (Wikipedia)

  • How the Saudi government plans to act in order to help stop innocent bloodshed in the Iraq-US conflict - this was asked by a female Iraqi-American student

  • The Saudi government's position on East Dharfour and the Sudan, humanitarian aid, and African Union presence in the UN

  • Segregation by gender in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: pros and cons of the status quo and modernization policy



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 9th, 2006 12:18 pm (UTC)
What were his responses to the various questions?
I would loved to have seen something on human rights of women get in there.
Apr. 9th, 2006 08:45 pm (UTC)
Ambassador's answers to the questions, part 1 of 2
As you would expect from an ambassador, Prince Turki was very open and informative in his answers. I'll summarize from memory and from my notes:

  • Criticisms regarding "aggressive export" of Wahhabi Islam: He noted that a lot of Americans don't really understand what "Wahhabism" is - a fundamentalist movement. The main point of his talk, which he made more explicit in his answer, was to address certain misconceptions about Saudi Arabia: that it is backwards, underdeveloped, terrorist-friendly, etc. Although Wahhabism is a state-sanctioned sect in Saudi Arabia, he said, he stressed the importance of peace and understanding among Islamic sects and between Islamic and non-Islamic nations. He did not talk explicitly about Judeo-Christian and Islamic relations, but there was that subtext to his commentary.
    To many in the West, he said, there is just one "Islamic world", and it is thought of as uniformly militant, violent, oppressive to women, etc. Saudi Arabia, he reiterated several times is a developing country that is coming to terms with the impact of "modernization": not only advanced industrialization and automation, but social evolution. He stressed that although the kingdom is proceeding in directions the West sees as "progress", it is doing so "in its own way and at a pace that is not disruptive to the way of life of the Saudi people" (paraphrased).
    I think this answer was sincere and meaningful, even though it may not satisfy many Westerners, especially non-Islamic people of Europe and the Americas. In particular, there are many who see disruption of what is, to them, an archaic stance towards women and nonheterosexual people (for example), as an undiluted good. The talk was interesting and important because it shows us that:

    • 1. Not everything about liberty is so clear-cut as we in the West think.

    • 2. The privileges of constitutional democracy and the republic (which have been advocated even by members of the Saudi royal family such as Prince Talal, father of the multibillionaire mogul, Prince Al-Waleed) carry a price, and are not readily espoused by all nations.

    and opens up dialogues about such topics.

  • U.S. federal charity commission: He answered that he was 100% in favor of this and often breathes down the necks of Saudi organizations (implied: lobbyists, and those Saudi leaders holding influence with the crown) as to a timetable.

  • Education: As I mentioned, the ambassador explained that the modern Saudi education system is modeled on that of the USA and closer to ours than to the British system. In a brief digression, he mentioned that 50% of the Saudi population is under the age of 25 and that women make up the majority of university graduates, as in the USA.

  • Recognition of the state of Israel: The questioner at first offered to retract his question when the ambassador pointed out that SA has already recognized Israel (which he thought it had not), but the ambasssador wanted to talk about the peace plan put before the Arab League in 2002 by then-Crown Prince Abdullah. I think there is a long way to go here, as even unequivocal condemnation of terrorist activities and a call for cessation of hostilities on both sides is just the beginning.

Apr. 9th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)
Ambassador's answers to the questions, part 2 of 2

  • Iraq: He talked about establishing relations with the coalition government and the importance of restoring sovereignty, in deed as well as in word, to the Iraqi state.

  • East Dharfour and the Sudan: He outlined official state policy and said that his government was acting to support humanitarian aid and very much in favor of allied African Union and Arab League intervention in ensuring continued aid, adding that "this is not just an AU problem".

  • Segregation by gender in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: He alluded to the progress in education of women, but did not talk much about employment reform. As you may know, the Saudi government has distanced itself of late from the Mutaween (enforcers of Sharia law) since the school fire tragedy that killed 15 girls, among other well-publicized incidents. He noted that the "most prized women in Saudi Arabia... those most sought after by suitors... are those with jobs". As an Asian-American, I felt some unease at the choice of words, but that is, I think, an accurate reflection of attitudes in the Kingdom.

Apr. 10th, 2006 11:43 pm (UTC)
Women Rights Evolving Rapidly
The Prince addressed the issue of women's rights in Saudi Arabia by describing Saudi as an evolving, emerging, but nonetheless; Young country. He put things into perspective by explaining that the country is still just 75 years old and still trying to find its way.

The Prince did describe women as accounting for a majority percentage of the work force, and mentioned how many female Saudi's are currently studying in the US on the same government scholarship that the Saudi men are on.

I think the main idea he was trying to convey was that, although Saudi Arabia still has a lot of progress to make in regards to gender equality, they are rapidly headed in the right direction.
Apr. 9th, 2006 03:16 pm (UTC)
Looking very smart prof!
It's awesome that a lotta happening people are visiting the campus!
Apr. 9th, 2006 06:03 pm (UTC)
The House of Saud, the USA, and the Middle East
Hi, Prahlad - thanks! :-D

This visit was actually very interesting, because as you may know, Prince Turki has been a somewhat controversial figure. He enjoys good relations with most people in American government because, according to the BBC article, he tried in 1998, three years before 9/11, to get Osama bin Laden extradited from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia. Before the Saudi government cut ties with OBL in 1994, of course, he had rare contact with him, as did others in foreign policymaking and intelligence.

Like other members of the House of Saud, Prince Turki is looked on favorably by the current US administration, and this has been controversial. Outspoken critic Michael Moore paints an extremely unfavorable picture of the House of Saud in Fahrenheit 911 as part of his critique of the Bush administration, a treatment that as you would expect, Prince Turki has criticized and defended his government against. Certainly Moore has come under fire for some undocumented and unsubstantiated claims made in the documentary film, including assertions and insinuations about Saudi ties to OBL just before and after 11 Sep 2001. Moore is not alone: in House of Bush, House of Saud (excerpt here), Craig Unger reports on Prince Bandar (predecessor of his cousin Prince Turki as ambassador to the USA) and Prince Ahmed bin Salman. Like Fahrenheit 9/11, it is critical of the current administration and moreover puts the House of Saud in an unfavorable light, though in a milder sense.

Whatever you may think of these allegations, however, it is indisputable that the House of Saud and the Bush family are closely allied, for many reasons. I think the ambassador's talk was informative and accessible to a general audience, though it did not delve into much detail relating to Saudi foreign policy. It was very generic on the topic of Saudi-US relations, though I think this is partly because the ambassador is new to this posting; he probably has more anecdotes about the UK and Ireland. There are additional controversies relating to the status of women in Saudi Arabia and the Arab-Israeli peace process that I'm glad the ambassador started to address, though I wish his talk and Q&A had been more than the 50 minutes total. I hope that Dr. Gustafson's report that President Wefald is planning to invite him back for a Landon Lecture does come to pass.

Apr. 9th, 2006 11:30 pm (UTC)
Re: The House of Saud, the USA, and the Middle East
Did the issues of Saudi-funded mosques and their agendas come up at any point?
Apr. 10th, 2006 12:24 am (UTC)
Saudi-funded mosques
Not in this talk - but which mosques specifically are you referring to?

Apr. 10th, 2006 10:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Saudi-funded mosques
Just generally, around Europe and I think USA too. It might have come up as part of the "aggressive export" of Wahhabism thingy.
Apr. 9th, 2006 09:31 pm (UTC)
You don't think "anemones" when you think "Arabia"

Ah ha! Now I will!!!! LOL.
Apr. 9th, 2006 10:30 pm (UTC)
1001 Anemone Nights
Look what you get when you Google for "Anemone of Arabia"!

It's Nemo with an anemone!

Apr. 17th, 2006 08:07 am (UTC)
Re: 1001 Anemone Nights
Ooh those are gorgeous pictures!!!!!

Hehe Nemo and anemones!! You get nemo out of anemone...never saw that before...
Apr. 10th, 2006 03:39 am (UTC)
Are you "linked in" ? I just found out about that service, thought it's kind of neat.
Apr. 10th, 2006 03:58 am (UTC)
Linking in
What is that, an OpenID thing?

Apr. 10th, 2006 03:41 am (UTC)
that was me who posted the message asking if you're in "linked in" :) forgot to sign in
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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