Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Ambassador Baquet, thank you for the kind introduction.
It is an honor to be here in New Orleans. Though, I am not sure I pronounced the name correctly. I have been informed of many different ways to say it. “Naw-Linz” or “New Or-Lee-Ans.” There seems to be much concern about this, so I don’t stand out as a tourist.
Truly, I am glad to be here today. In fact, I am glad we all can be here today. I am heading out this afternoon for a tour of the Ninth Ward. I have read and seen many photos of the destruction. The damage exacted by the brutal winds, waves, and water of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding is remarkable. I will never cease to be amazed that some 80 percent of this city was under water.
Despite this devastation, we should continue to be encouraged by returning signs of life to this area. A great catastrophe occurred, and it will take years to recover. As I look around this city, and think that almost a year has passed, I feel optimistic about what I see. There is a lot of evidence of some fundamental recovery taking place.
The port, which is so vital to this city and this state’s economic viability, is up and running. Historically, it has been a critical waterway for the whole of the Western United States. This is a great sign.
Your hospital systems are coming back on line – with institutions such as Charity Hospital working to deliver increased levels of patient care. And your education system is adapting and even using this situation as an opportunity to start fresh.
Indeed, Ben Franklin Elementary School is paving the way – not only as the first public school to have reopened, but – I am told – as an example of what the future of education in this city will look like. In each case there is recuperation and improvement.
There is hope here, because the citizens of this city persevere. As the American troubadour, Bob Dylan, has written: “The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here.... New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that do not have the magic anymore, still has got it.... Around every corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal, and things are just getting going.”
This is because while the buildings of New Orleans were being washed away, its foundation remained intact. You can’t simply erase the spirit of a community. You can’t easily destroy the determination of a people.
As I have met citizens of your city, I have witnessed your community spirit and your can-do attitude. You’ve picked yourselves up to rebuild your families and your lives and the framework of a rich and beautiful culture. You do so for yourselves, but you also do so because of your place in the world.
Many international influences – from French to Spanish to African to Native American – have converged in this city. Your unique food, music, and arts have, in turn, inspired people from all around the globe. From Jazz to Jambalaya, New Orleans has made important contributions to the world community. And now, the global community is making contributions to New Orleans.
With respect and reverence for your heritage, many international entities have come together to support you as you rebuild. Today, I bring you the friendship of the Saudi people, and I am proud to say that the Kingdom is here making contributions in kind. Through humanitarian aid and other support, the Saudi people have lent a helping hand as New Orleans restores its place in the world.
I am here to see first-hand what impact there has been. I am here to see what else can be done. And I am here to see how we, as members of the global community, can better prepare for natural disasters and other events that impact all humans across the world.
Ladies and gentlemen. In a world in which we divide ourselves based on our differences, this city is coming together because of what we have in common: We are all human.
There is a unity of spirit that comes with a natural disaster. In the face of a hurricane, we are all one and the same. Our different religions do not matter to the path of a wave. And our politics cease to be important on ground shaken by an earthquake.
At the end of the day – after the floods have retreated, after the ground has settled, after the plagues have gone away – we all feel the same needs. We need warmth and shelter. We need food and clothing. We need medicine. Little else matters without that which allows us simply to live.
Saudis have a special understanding of this condition. As a result of living for countless generations in the harsh desert of the Arabian peninsula, the Bedouin tradition has fostered a sympathy and generosity for our fellow man in the face of hardship. It is Arab custom to take in those in need, and feed and shelter them without asking questions or for anything in return. The inhospitable sands of the Ar Rub’ Al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, leave a narrow margin for life to thrive. So we look to protect all of life, wherever it is in the world.
As the Arab proverb goes: “If you have much, give of your wealth. If you have little, give of your heart.” In Saudi Arabia, while we have been conditioned by our environment, we have also been blessed with a great deal. The wealth we have as a result of our natural resources has enabled us to do tremendous good around the world.
Since the mid-1970s, Saudi Arabia’s foreign aid has amounted to nearly $80 billion. In total, this represents, on average, approximately 4 percent of the Kingdom’s annual GDP, making Saudi Arabia one of the most generous nations in the world.
Where there is human plight, the Saudi people wish to ease the pain and eliminate the suffering. Where there is a disaster, Saudi Arabia aims to help rebuild. And New Orleans is a good example of this.
Last year, the United Nations reported that Saudi Arabia was one of the largest contributors to the Katrina Relief Fund outside the United States. Throughout the emergency, Saudi Arabia worked with the American Red Cross and United Nations agencies to find the best ways to support your own efforts. Aramco Services Company implemented much of that work.
To provide shelter, the people of Saudi Arabia have given money to Habitat for Humanity to construct more than 150 homes for displaced families from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. I know in Houston, where many people from these areas have sought refuge, families are already moving into their new homes.
To provide food, the Kingdom has supported the work of the Second Harvesters Food Bank. This organization continues to distribute millions of pounds of food to the southern part of Louisiana, providing, daily, thousands of quality meals to needy men, women and children.
To provide medicine, we are working with LSU Health Sciences Center and Siemens Medical Systems to restore needed diagnostic equipment and services. We especially want to see Charity Hospital restored because of the critical role it plays helping those in need in this community.
I hesitate to mention all of our efforts, because to discuss them would belittle the gesture. The Qur’an tells us: “If you perform deeds of charity openly, it is good; but if you bestow it upon the needy in secret, it is preferred.”
I only discuss our efforts now because I believe the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast should know that the people of Saudi Arabia continue to support you as you rebuild. We stood by you as you weathered the storm, and we continue to stand by you.
And we stand by you in the same way we help people from all over the world – from battling locusts in Eritrea, to sending medicine to earthquake victims in Pakistan and Indonesia, to supplying needed water and food to those stricken by drought in Cambodia and West Africa. And all of these efforts were in the last year alone.
Ladies and gentlemen. Today, physical distance no longer removes us from the realities of the world. Thanks to television, satellites, and the internet, we can now connect with more people than ever before. This allows us to be aware of the conditions of life on the far sides of the planet. These are potent means to evoke understanding and sympathy, and to shape people’s ideas and emotions.
Think of two years ago, when a tsunami tore a path across the Indian Ocean Region. Within hours, the world saw first hand the devastation of so many millions of lives. Also within hours, people – like yourselves – from across the world were setting up relief operations, sending aid, and helping in every way imaginable – and many of these were people who previously never heard of places like Sumatra, Maldives, or Sri Lanka.
However great or however modest, we must do what we can for others, because some day we will be the ones in need. It was the American author Herman Melville who wrote: “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
For our part, though, we do not have to wait for disaster to strike to take up causes and spread goodwill. In this modern era, the results of our actions – or inactions – for good or for bad return to us so quickly.
We must remain aware of this because the problems in the world are not just natural in scope. Hurricanes and earthquakes, droughts and floods are but one type of disaster. There is another type, which is the spread of disease and poverty. In many places, this takes on a political dimension. The welfare of the people of the poorer nations of the world needs to be recognized. Their quality of life is important because it has the potential to be a breeding ground for anger, frustration, and misplaced blame.
Both disease and political tension can cross borders and spread. This is why King Abdullah is proactive in addressing the conditions of life around the world. It is why Saudi Arabia is combating AIDS in Africa and the Bird Flu in South Asia. It is why we recently allocated $1 billion to alleviate poverty throughout the African continent, and why we also continue to work to help the people in places such as Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
From natural disaster to political strife, no one is immune. But wherever we can – because it is our heritage, because it is a part of our Islamic faith – and quite simply because we have the means to – Saudi Arabia seeks to be a force for peace and stability throughout the world.
Robert Kennedy once remarked that, quote: “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” In our lives, as you know, we will all likely be touched by tragedy of some sort. The key is for us to learn from it, and determine how we can use our experience to help others. There are ways we can.
After the tsunami, the idea was raised to create an international relief center. This would allow humanitarian relief to be collected and dispersed more efficiently and effectively. The idea was circulated again recently by officials from Malaysia, which has been afflicted by earthquakes. I believe this is a good idea. The major nations of the world should draw on their experiences and combine their resources to help manage future disasters better.
For all of us, ladies and gentlemen, it is not a matter of “if”, it is a matter of “when.” As we can see here in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, no matter if you are a developing nation or even a superpower, we all have the same vulnerabilities in the face of nature.
In the mean time, as you recover, you should know that you truly are being supported by many in the global community. I, for one, speak on behalf of the Saudi people, when I extend to you the deepest respect for your fine city and the greatest hopes for your recovery.
Ladies and gentlemen: Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – and God bless you all.