Ladies and Gentlemen: Thank you. Senator Abourezk, thank you for the kind introduction. I appreciate being invited to speak here today. I would also like to thank Ms. Oakar. Under Ms. Oakar’s leadership, the ADC has worked hard to protect the rights of Arabs in the United States. This is a mission I support. Through both national and local programs, the ADC helps all Arab Americans have better opportunities to make positive contributions to public life. This is needed not just among Arab Americans, but also in the Arab world, in order to promote a balanced US policy in the Middle East region.
Outreach, education and dialogue are critical to my own mission of helping to build greater understanding between Saudi Arabia and the US. This is especially important during this time when the Arab world is in the spotlight of American and global attention. So I thank you for all your efforts.
While I was invited today as the Saudi ambassador to the United States, I would like to speak to you foremost as an Arab. I am here to convey what I have experienced during my time in your great country. I am here to celebrate the beautiful mosaic that is the Arab world. And I am here to share with you some of my thoughts on the place of the Arab in today’s American society.
Part of my work as ambassador during the last several months has been to go out and talk with the American people. I have had the honor of being invited to visit many of your major cities and smaller towns. At each stop, from New York City to Seattle to Phoenix to Nashville, and to Manhattan – in Kansas, I have been overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality with which I have been received.
Since America is, as they say, a melting pot, I have spoken with Americans of all faiths. I have had conversations with Americans who are of African and Asian and European descent. And I have also been meeting with Americans of Arab descent.
I have made a certain point to visit some of the Arab American communities in the US and I have talked with their leaders. I have been to their homes. I have listened to their issues and concerns. And throughout all my travels, I have come to some conclusions about what I have witnessed.
America is truly a melting pot of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions and ideas. It is an open system in which each and everyone can thrive and excel. The only limits I have seen are those of one’s imagination. It is a nation of great innovation and productivity, grounded in faith and fairness and justice. And while it may stray from its principles from time to time, it always returns to its proper balance.
I see that Arabs have an important place in this great American society. We only have to look at how Arabs for more than a century have built thriving communities all across the country. We can look to Michigan – particularly to Dearborn – where Arab Americans have been integral in the growth of the automotive industry.
I also see that Arab Americans have made valuable contributions in other fields. And America appreciates it. For example, if it were not for Danny Thomas and the American-Lebanese-Syrian associated charities, there would not be a St. Jude’s children’s research hospital. This center has changed the lives of millions through medical discoveries that treat cancer and other diseases.
For many Americans, Arab-Americans are invisible, recalled only when words like “terrorism” or “anti-American sentiments” arise. However, people of Arab descent have been contributing to US culture since the 1870s in fields as diverse as literature, science, politics, medicine, and commerce—witness surgeon Michael Debakey, former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh, author Khalil Gibran and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
There is also Dr. Ahmed Zewail, who in 1998 won the King Faisal Prize and in 1999 won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. The director of the jet propulsion laboratory is an Arab, Charles el-Achi. We can even see here at this conference alone, there are some great examples of Arabs who have paved a path for others, like Omar Sharif and Helen Thomas. The contributions Arab Americans have made are extensive.
I also see that individuals in the Arab American community have worked hard to improve their lot. They’ve struggled—as all immigrants have in this country—to secure a place for their family, faith, and heritage. Since the turn of the last century, Arabs, as individuals, came to the US, found opportunity, and sent back for their family to be schooled or employed. This is the classic American story and many Arab-Americans have successfully shared in this dream.
But though I see all of these accomplishments and all of this good, I also see something else that gives me pause. I see that Arab Americans—as a group—are holding themselves back.
When I go out and speak with Arabs in the US, I sense great frustration—frustration that they are not being heard. The voice of the Arab American community in the US is either being drowned out or not expressed loudly enough. And the needs and the rights of Arabs in America need to be emphasized to a greater extent—in both legislation and in the media.
I also sense anger—anger that the progress Arab Americans have made throughout the years has been upended by terrorists and deviants who have no values in common with us. The accomplishments of all the Arab Americans were so quickly washed over by the tidal wave of misinformation that followed September 11. Fear and suspicion suddenly replaced appreciation and respect.
And I sense defensiveness—defensiveness because the beliefs, culture, and heritage of Arab Americans are under attack because they are misunderstood. Again, because of terrorism, the already largely misunderstood Arab culture in the US was dealt a hand of prejudice.
I feel that this complex assortment of emotion—frustration, anger, and defensiveness—has been stifling Arab Americans as a group. In many ways these issues are being internalized, hindering a common and united message. They are not being dealt with constructively enough. Instead of coming together and honestly expressing how all Arab Americans are being treated, the community, as a whole, has been quietly coping.
I don’t need to explain to any of you that the need for establishing bridges of understanding between Arabs and Americans is more critical than ever. The need actually extends far beyond the shores of this country. It is as necessary to the Arab Americans living here, as it is to the Arabs in the Middle East. We, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, carry a scar that weighs heavily on our shoulders; the scar of the horrible crime committed on September 11, 2001, in which 15 of our nationals participated. We must not allow the criminals who committed that crime to succeed in driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia—or for that matter the Arab world—and the United States.
So if, as the title of this conference suggests, the Arab American community is to build for the future, then we really need to take a good look at what the plan is for building new bridges, enduring bridges—bridges that will span inevitable misunderstanding and unite two peoples—Arabs and Americans—who truly share so much in common.
Ladies and gentlemen: America will return to its proper balance, I have no doubt about that. You just need to be active and patient at the same time; active by speaking out and getting involved; and patient by recognizing that it may take some time for your actions to translate into tangible results.
Based on my experience and what I have heard from Arabs throughout the US, there are areas where, when planning for the future, the Arab American community can help itself. If Arabs are going to secure the understanding they deserve and the respect they desire in this country, then two clear objectives need to be achieved.
First, Arabs need to find their voice in the discourse of American politics. Arabs need to get out there and get involved more. Right now Arab Americans are underrepresented relative to their numbers, their economic status, and their achievements. As an ethnic group with clear importance to American society, too few are heeding the call to action. There are over three million highly successful Americans of Arab descent in the US today, but only five Arab American members of Congress.
I know Arab Americans want a voice in this country. You’ve told me so. I have heard it from coast to coast. If Arabs want a greater voice, they must stand up. They must stand up and get involved.
There are signs of progress. In terms of political culture, Arab Americans are on the cusp of breaking through. Although proportionally there is slender representation, there are now more Arab American officials than at any other time in American history—from former presidential Cabinet members to senators to governors.
As citizens, Arab Americans are coalescing too, in such places as Michigan, Minnesota, California, and even Florida. I think the message here is clear: If you are a part of this political system, you should work to find how your voice can be heard.
The other objective that needs to be achieved is that Arab American groups in the US have to come together more. They need to coordinate their resources and capabilities to a greater extent. The Arab world is a diverse world. But it does not have to be a diffuse world. Arabs may be from different backgrounds, have different faiths, but they are all Arab in this country. The issues that affect one affect all: the visa issues, the employment issues, the discrimination issues. These weigh heavily on all Arabs, regardless of faith and original heritage.
Organizations supporting the Arab-American cause need to act together. They need to work together. They need to reach out to one another, if they truly want to serve this community. The goal for each organization is ultimately the same, and they need to recognize this. In doing so, they should also open up their dialogue and listen to each other.
These are practical and concrete steps that will help bring together a group of Americans —Arab Americans—who desire openly that they want more solidarity. They want to be treated with the rights and courtesy extended to every other person who comes to this great nation. That is why I have great confidence. Despite the hardships and difficulty—Arab Americans want to get out there and make a difference.
They want to face down the overwhelmingly negative perceptions that were spread about Arabs after September 11. They want to tell the whole story—beyond the sensationalism of mass media. They want to move past what is politically motivated and to address the facts. And, they want to address the issues, not just the emotions.
Let me share with you what else gives me confidence. I know Americans today possess a greater interest in Arab affairs than ever before. The focus of America’s attention is on the Middle East. Perhaps for the first time, there is widespread interest among Americans to look into the issues, to find out who stands for what in the Arab world. There is an opportunity here, and as the Arab proverb tells us: “Dawn does not come twice to awaken a man.”
It has also become apparent that as Americans and Arabs interact more and learn more about each other, that we are realizing that we have more in common with each other. Despite the cultural differences, we all share a basic belief in faith and family, and a desire for peace and opportunity. Though common, these principles underscore a great deal about how we can connect on many issues.
This opportunity is one that I have been trying to take advantage of. As I mentioned, I have been out talking with Americans, listening to their questions and concerns. I have been sharing my story, and my country’s story. And while I am only one person, my activity is actually a part of a larger effort by Saudi Arabia to engage Americans. We have adopted a strategy that is focused more on people-to-people contact. The Kingdom is encouraging more delegations of officials, and business leaders, and women to come to the United States to share their views but also to learn. We are also encouraging more Americans to come to the Kingdom and learn about us and our culture.
We have revitalized a scholarship program to send our students to colleges throughout the world. Most of our students will be coming to the United States. They will not only be receiving a world-class education, they will be forming the next generation of friendships and bonds between Saudi Arabia, the Arab world, and the United States. They will be representing their culture and their heritage. They, ladies and gentlemen, will be the true ambassadors.
And so as you leave this conference, I implore each of you to continue on in your own right—as ambassadors from the Arab world. Every Arab American has a great story to tell about how they got here, or how their parents or grandparents or great grandparents first came to the United States. And they should be proud of and share these stories.
Whether you are from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, or any other part of the Arab world, you should be proud of your Arab heritage and legacy—which truly does extend here to the United States. You should be proud of the contributions Arabs have made to the advancement of humanity over the centuries, and to the greatness of American culture and life. And you should be proud of yourselves, for you are the only ones who can bridge the gap between the two great societies. It is not always easy, but it will always be rewarding. And it can’t be done without you.
Speak with your friends and family. Get involved in the political process. Build on the strong foundation that exists and the momentum that is carrying forth. And through this we will be able to build those bridges between America and the Arab world.
Ladies and gentlemen: Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – and God bless you all.