Dr Noah Feldman, Dr. Bernard Haykel, thank you for inviting me to talk at your prestigious university. Ladies and gentlemen: I appreciate you taking the time to join me here today. I always look forward to speaking before students. It is a privilege to be able to contribute what I can to your understanding of issues that are of great importance to our two nations.
Over the course of the last year, I have traveled to more than 25 states and talked with students at numerous colleges and universities – Kansas State, the University of Chicago, Tufts, Harvard, MIT, Georgetown, and several others. I have been listening to young people voice their questions and concerns about the relations between the U.S. and my country.
I view this interaction as the most important aspect of my job as Ambassador. I enjoy listening to and sharing distinct viewpoints. I believe, for this reason, you are all very fortunate to be receiving an education at an institution such as NYU. You not only have exposure to renowned professors; you also have New York City, which is an education in multiculturalism and internationalism unto itself. I always enjoy spending time in the Big Apple.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Because the last few months have been saturated with talk of politics and government policy, I am going to digress from these concerns. Instead, I will take this time to discuss a topic that I don’t often have the opportunity to address. And that is Saudi youth.
I would like to share with you a picture of what’s going on in the Kingdom today. Specifically, I’d like to talk about how we are making space in society for our younger citizens, and how we are preparing them to take a place in the global community.
These types of considerations are naturally important for all governments. It is a matter of making sure our nation is prepared for tomorrow. But in Saudi Arabia, a great deal is going on. Many initiatives are underway to secure a future for our children – politically, economically, and socially. And we are doing so for a number of reasons.
One reason is a matter of demographics. The oil boom years of the 1970s created wealth, and the wealth was used to develop our nation. Infant mortality rates dropped significantly, and life-expectancy increased among Saudis. As a way to help its people, the government put in place a social welfare system. This was designed to take care of our citizens from the cradle to the grave: free education, free healthcare, interest-free mortgages for first-time homebuyers, interest-free loans for small businesses, and subsidies for farmers.
As a consequence, many Saudis began large families. And their children are now a part of the generation coming into the workforce. For them and the following generation, we’ve had to be prepared.
Another reason is a matter of generational interplay. Like you, your Saudi peers have grown up in a different world than their elders. Unlike you, the difference is actually quite dramatic.
Some fifty years ago, Saudi Arabia was still primarily a nomadic society, with few large cities. For most people in the Kingdom, tribal association remained stronger than national identity. About thirty years ago, as I mentioned, many changes began to take place. The Kingdom opened to telecommunications. We began to build modern hospitals and schools, skyscrapers and malls, highways and airports – where a few decades earlier only desert existed.
New challenges came quickly as Saudi Arabia’s place in the world grew. My generation saw Saudi King Faisal assassinated. We lived through the regional turmoil of the oil embargo of the mid-70s. We witnessed the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Makkah by extremists in ’79. These were all events that drastically altered the world view of older Saudis – as Vietnam, Watergate, and the deaths of leaders, such as President Kennedy – did for most Americans.
For Saudi youth, the amount of political, cultural and societal change their parents and grandparents have seen in such a short period of time is difficult to grasp. My generation saw modern Saudi Arabia built. This generation was born into it.
As the Kingdom continues to grow and modernize, and as young Saudis today face their own set of challenges – the online revolution and satellite TV, globalization and the new economy – we want to be sure they are sufficiently grounded in their heritage and culture.
The Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck said: “One faces the future with one’s past.” This has been the mantra of Saudis for the last three generations. Our Islamic heritage and our traditions have held firm the fabric of our society – despite a virtual revolution of modernity. The governing of our nation has been grounded in the Islamic Shari’ah and Arab tribal custom – and we have remained a pillar of stability in the face of a tumultuous region. We have worked diligently to strike a balance between providing for the modern welfare of our people and obtaining a consensus from our citizens about what type of change they can manage. We have been successful.
Saudis are being prepared. They are being educated, and they are being protected from deviant and corruptive influences. We are making sure of this, ladies and gentlemen, because our children truly are the keys to the Kingdom.
How have we been doing this? Saudi Arabia has been helping its citizens – particularly its young citizens – in two ways. First, we have been taking steps to improve how Saudis view the world. And second, we have been taking steps to improve how the world views Saudis.
To address this first point – how Saudis view the world – the Kingdom has undertaken a series of ongoing initiatives to increase participation in government, to improve economic opportunity, and to modernize learning. Saudis want the same as anyone else – opportunity, education and a good job. We need to give them the tools to succeed and interact in the global community.
One of Saudi Arabia’s most significant steps to open Saudis up to the world was to join the World Trade Organization. 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. It is also important as a way for us to diversity our economy away from oil.
I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, the oil will be flowing for a long while to come, but Saudi Arabia cannot live on oil alone. We are encouraging the development of banking, information technology and other industries. If we are to build a skill set for tomorrow’s economy, we must start today.
This, of course, goes along with the important initiatives Saudi Arabia continues to make to upgrade its educational system. The Kingdom is in the process of reviewing all of its education practices and materials, and is removing any element that is inconsistent with the needs of a modern education. Not only are we eliminating what might be perceived as intolerance from old text books that were in our system, we have implemented a comprehensive internal revision and modernization plan.
New curricula emphasize critical thinking, math, and science, and these curricula also emphasize the teaching of true Islamic values and the positive skills necessary for good citizenship and productivity, as well as how to safeguard community in peace, the environment, health and human rights. In every level of education, from grade school to high school to college, the government has gone so far as to sponsor lectures that promote moderation and tolerance. Even kindergarteners are made aware of the importance of tolerance and peace.
Saudis cannot deny that terrorism and extremism pose a serious threat and can be a corruptive influence to youth. So we are making sure our young citizens learn about its evils and understand the true nature of our Islamic faith.
All of these programs – and others such as the National Dialogues, which promote the public exchange of ideas on topics like women in society and youth – help to improve the outlook of Saudis on the world. If they are to compete globally, they must be able to think globally.
This is why Saudi Arabia rejuvenated a scholarship program to send Saudi students to colleges and universities abroad. They can learn, make friends, and experience foreign cultures. In the first phase of the program, 10,000 students were offered full, four-year scholarships. Most of them – I would say 95% of them -- will study in the United States.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The Saudi scholarship program actually brings me to the second way the Kingdom is helping its youth. In addition to giving Saudis a positive perspective, we have also been taking steps to improve the world’s view of the Saudi people. And the scholarship program figures into this effort perfectly.
By sending our students abroad, we are not only providing them with a world-class education, we are, in a way, sending a fleet of envoys around the world. These students are the true Ambassadors of Saudi Arabia. They will be out forming friendships and relationships that will break down barriers of misunderstanding between our cultures. They will be actively demonstrating what we have in common.
This is critical because there are a great number of unfair misperceptions out there about Saudi Arabia. Whether they are related to misunderstanding about the nature of Islam, or are vicious stereotypes derived from the actions of terrorists and extremists, these weigh heavily on the Saudi people.
Adding to the issue is the fact that news media and popular culture provide a poor window through which the Kingdom is viewed. As educated as I have found Americans during my time in this country, I still encounter people 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.
We can certainly shoulder the responsibility for some of this. Saudis are a private people. In recent years, though, we’ve opened up our country to a great extent. We welcome journalists and academics. We welcome government officials and businesspeople. We welcome you all as well.
If you came to the Kingdom, you would see a burgeoning society, whose youth are urban and increasingly sophisticated. They go to Starbucks and Internet cafes, not that those are signs of sophistication. They travel extensively, and they have embraced their Saudi identity. You would also see the modernizing nation in which they were raised and will soon be full participants.
Saudi surgeons are pioneering new techniques to separate conjoined twins and perform organ transplants. Saudi women are opening businesses in new industries every day. 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.
We want the world to be aware of all of this. But we also want you to know that as we continue to build our society and participate in the world community, we are making sure we are doing so in a way that is consistent with our traditions. If our young citizens are going to be able to manage the challenges of the next century, they must have the character and moral fiber to make the right decisions.
In talking about my nation’s efforts to guide its youth, I am reminded of the words of the American author Jack Kerouac. He said: “All of life is a foreign country.” A more prescient statement could not have been made about the world today.
So as your generation seeks its own path, please keep in mind what we impart to the youth of Saudi Arabia. That is, some experiences you may have will closely resemble those of others. 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 are all the same.
Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – and God bless you all.