Dr. Allen, thank you for that introduction. I am very proud to be here for the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Saudi cultural exhibit. On behalf of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the Saudi people, I thank you for this honorable tribute to our nation.
I would also like to thank the University of Northern Iowa’s Saudi Student Club for the invitation to speak here this afternoon. I appreciate all your work to advance cultural understanding and to improve relations between people. It is certainly a legacy of the people of the area. The first mosque in the United States was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; as well as the first national Muslim cemetery. It is truly an honor to be able to contribute to this fine heritage of openness and understanding.
Originally, I had intended to talk about the war on terrorism and some of the strategic challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the United States. I will be happy to take questions on this topic later, if you have them. But I believe, in the spirit of this occasion, it is perhaps more appropriate to talk a bit about Saudi Arabia’s history and culture.
During the last few months, I have been traveling throughout the United States talking with Americans. I have been listening to their questions and concerns. Each visit to a new town affords me an opportunity to address directly the perceptions and misperceptions that are out there about Saudi Arabia, which, I am sure, many members of the Northern Iowa Saudi Club do every day by virtue of being Saudis in the United States.
Like them, I was educated in the United States. My parents sent me to a boarding school in New Jersey at age 14. And I remember when I went to school on the first day, a young boy came up to me, slapped me on the back and introduced himself. I introduced myself in return, and from that point on, he kept asking me questions: Where are you from? What is it like? How many family members do you have? Can you ride a camel? Do you live in a tent?
He was very much like the Bedouins when they meet – very engaging, very appealing and very inquisitive. That interaction made me feel at home immediately.
I believe this is the type of feeling Saudis have had for Americans since we first developed our relations some 70 years ago. Long before our governments formed their strategic relations, citizens of our countries were forming friendships and business partnerships on their own. We found that despite some of our cultural differences, we are in fact a great deal alike. We’re plainspoken and straightforward, and we both believe in the importance of faith and family.
I know these values are shared by the people of Iowa. Perhaps it is the vast, open spaces that draw us close to our God and our loved ones. Despite advancing technology and infrastructure, which have changed the face of the places where we live, these core values have remained constant.
The University of Northern Iowa, for example, has certainly seen a lot of change. Founded in 1876 as the Iowa State Normal School, it then became the Teacher’s College. Then it was the State College of Iowa, and now the University of Northern Iowa. With each change in name, its educational offering improved and evolved with the needs of the time. As they say, the University of Northern Iowa puts its “students first.”
Similarly, Saudi Arabia puts its people first – especially as we have undergone the massive transformation of the last 50 years. But during this time, we have worked hard to stay true to our Arabian heritage and Islamic identity. And I’d like to discuss with you today where Saudi Arabia is now, where we are headed, and how our history influences the direction ahead – whether that is our recent accession to the World Trade Organization, the broadening of political participation, or our new education initiatives.
In many ways, all that Saudi Arabia continues to accomplish is never wholly conveyed to the American people. Unfortunately, the news media and popular culture provide a poor window through which the Kingdom is viewed. As I travel throughout the U.S., I find that there are still people out there who believe Saudis ride on camels to work, 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. 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.
The King rules by consent, and 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 the prayers, 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 new 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.
In the spring of 2005, Saudi Arabia conducted elections in 178 municipal councils throughout the Kingdom. Last 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 U.S. 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: As Saudi Arabia moves forward, our growth will be rooted firmly in our heritage and faith. As we align ourselves ever more closely with the global community, our citizens will continue to share and learn about the world around them, as we hope others can share and learn and appreciate our culture.
We are so committed to this type of growth that the Saudi government has launched a scholarship program to send Saudi students to colleges and universities abroad to learn, to make friends, and to experience foreign cultures. In the first phase of the program, 10,000 students were offered full four-year scholarships. Most of them are studying in the United States.
When I look out at the Saudi students in the audience, I think about how important their representation here is to the Kingdom and to the Saudi people. They are the true Ambassadors of Saudi Arabia. They are the ones who will be going out to form friendships and relationships that will break down barriers of misunderstanding between our cultures. They will be out here explaining the details of the heritage of which I speak. They will be actively demonstrating what we have in common. After all, not every town in America has an exhibit as enlightening as the one we’re here to celebrate today.
And although our nations have come from different places, we’re headed in the same direction. But each in their own way.
Some of our experiences will closely resemble yours. Some will be different. But it is critical to remember that although our language, our dress, and our customs may be different, our hopes, our aspirations, and our dreams for our children are all the same.
Ladies and gentlemen, I greatly appreciate being invited here today. Again, on behalf of the Saudi people, thank you for your work to advance understanding between the Saudi and American people.
Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – and God bless you all.