Thank you, for the kind introduction. I appreciate the invitation to be here today, and the warm welcome I have received from President Trani and Mohammad Almutery. Again, thank you.
I will speak for a bit on Saudi history and culture, and then I will be open to any questions you have.
I am always pleased to have an opportunity to speak before students like yourselves. Your minds are open to the world. And you’re being taught by excellent professors, like those here at VCU.
Unfortunately, out in the world, the news media and popular culture provide a poor window through which people learn about life in foreign countries. I can tell you they don’t show the whole picture of Saudi Arabia.
During the last several months, as I travel throughout the United States, I have found that there are still people out there who believe Saudis ride to work on camels, that our women are all oppressed and chained to the kitchen, and that our countryside is only filled with gushing oil wells.
Saudi Arabia is, indeed, a unique country, but our reality defies our stereotypes. We are a burgeoning society, striving for modernization. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, a great deal has been going on under the desert sun – and our history proves this.
Saudi Arabia, in the official sense, is a young country, almost 75 years old. But the Saudi political order traces its origins back to 1744, some 32 years before the American Revolution, when the first Saudi state was established by unifying the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. And, like modern Saudi Arabia, it was governed on the basis of the Islamic Shari’ah and Arab tribal custom.
The modern Saudi state, which was founded in 1932, evolved from this blending of order, unity, and Islamic legitimacy. And at the heart of it lies a social contract between the sovereign and the people. Islam enjoins on the ruler to protect the religion, safeguard the people, and provide justice for all. Bedouin tradition regards the ruler as a first among equals. He is judged by his ability to provide leadership and preserve unity.
Even today, the King rules by consent, and virtually no important decision is taken by him without extensive consultation with the various elements of society. His sole goal is to promote the welfare of his people.
When King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, wanted to introduce radio broadcasting to the Kingdom in the 1940s, a number of prominent citizens opposed the idea. They felt radio would be disruptive to society and would cause the faithful to deviate from the path of righteousness. In short, they said, radio was the work of the devil.
By virtue of his position, King Abdulaziz could have forced the issue on society. But what he did instead was assemble those same notables who opposed radio broadcasting, and, at the time of prayer, turned the radio on. When the recitation of the Qur’an was heard through the radio, King Abdulaziz asked those assembled: “How could the work of the devil carry the word of God?”
The late King Abdulaziz indicated to them that the radio would be used to educate the faithful about their religion and about the world. Once he established that the radio could be beneficial to society, the rest was simply a matter of programming.
If we look at where Saudi Arabia is today, the Saudi government still strives to strike this balance – to provide for the welfare of our people while obtaining a consensus from our citizens about what they can manage. And we have been successful.
During the last 30 years, we have built the infrastructure to support a modern society. The wealth derived from our natural resources has been used to develop our nation. The government has put in place a social welfare system that takes care of its citizens: free education, free health care, interest-free mortgages for first-time homebuyers, interest-free loans for small businesses, and subsidies for farmers.
Such support has produced a great deal of development in the Kingdom in recent years. We have hospitals and schools, skyscrapers and malls, highways and airports – where a few decades ago only desert existed. Saudi surgeons are pioneering new techniques to separate conjoined twins and perform organ transplants. Saudi women are opening businesses in new industries every day, and they now have ownership stakes in almost 25,000 companies in the Kingdom.
Last year the Saudi stock exchange set records, and is now, by far, the largest emerging market in the world, with a market capitalization exceeding $700 billion. Technology has been integrated into our society and economy, and is driving our performance. In the last five years, internet usage has grown by more than 1,000 percent, and this year, we are sending into space six communications and observation satellites.
Our nation is taking off, and we are reaching out to the world around us.
But as we continue to build our society and actively participate in the global community, we are making sure we are doing so in a way that is consistent with our traditions. We may have modern technology and all the worldly goods that come along with it. But what are we as a nation in the eyes of the world, if we trade on our values?
One of Saudi Arabia’s most significant steps to participating in the global economy was to join the World Trade Organization last December. As a consequence, more Saudi products will have access to the global marketplace, creating jobs and opportunities for our citizens. And it will also encourage more international investments and products to come to the Kingdom. The WTO accession process took Saudi Arabia 13 years to complete, but it was critical that every last condition was met without undermining our faith, values and tradition.
The building of a global community does not mean that all countries must be alike. Rather, it means we are all able to engage this shared system in our own way.
A good example of this is that all forms of governments are not the same. And the pursuit of participatory government does not have to be uniform. It comes in many shapes and forms: the American system, the British system, the Indian system, and so on. In Saudi Arabia, we are forming our own system.
Last spring, Saudi Arabia conducted elections in 178 municipal councils throughout the Kingdom. And in December, the councils officially convened for the first time. These elections are only a step in the Kingdom’s continuing efforts to ensure that the government provides for the needs of its people. We are changing, but in a way that is consistent with our traditions and faith, and at a pace that is not disruptive to our society.
Our heritage dictates that our plans should be studied and meaningful. We have learned, over the centuries, that in order to survive in the desert, we must be able to differentiate between a mirage and reality.
So the pursuit of successful and lasting change must be deliberate to be real. The formation of municipal councils and the corresponding elections represent an important step in the Kingdom’s ongoing efforts to broaden political participation. And there are more steps ahead.
Participating fully in the global community also requires that we be honest and transparent with each other about our concerns. Our special relationship with the United States, for example, does not preclude our having special differences. As long as we are open in our communication, we will be rewarded by a variety of outlooks and solutions, and a process that can only bring us closer.
We are working very closely with the US to find solutions to many complex issues facing the world today – including the war on terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and a stable energy market, among others. Our distinct viewpoints provide us with the unique perspectives needed to obtain greater understanding and lasting solutions to these issues. It is important that your generation is aware of the complexity of these issues, because you will soon be playing a role in their resolution.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope this has provided you with a good overview of where Saudi Arabia has come from and where it is today. I would be happy now to answer any question you may have. Thank you.