Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. Dean Mayer, thank you for the kind introduction. And thank you for inviting me to speak here today.
In my remarks, I am supposed to cover my first 100 days as Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the US. Before becoming a diplomat, I spent 30 years in the intelligence business without speaking to anybody, so you can imagine the kind of relief I have in being able to talk to you all. I am glad to share my experiences. I will be sure to be brief though, as I am sure you have many questions.
When I first came to Washington, DC, everyone told me the same thing: “Leave Washington.” I hope this was not because I was unpopular. Rather, they were telling me to go see America. Go speak to the people who live here. Listen to their thoughts and concerns about Saudi Arabia and Saudi-US relations. And tell the American people what life is like in the Kingdom.
This is exactly what I have done. In the last few months I have traveled to almost every corner of the US – Texas, Arizona, California, Washington State, Michigan, here in Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Kansas and Georgia. And I will be continuing to travel throughout the mid-west and the south during the summer.
I can tell you honestly that what I have been taken with the most is the warm reception I have received everywhere I have visited. The people I have met are very open and very curious. From what I have known throughout my life, though, this is how Americans are.
I remember when I came to school in the United States some years ago. 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 think that spirit continues. There’s a great thirst for information and knowledge, not just about Saudi Arabia as a geographic entity, but about the people, and the culture, and the history.
I am grateful that Americans, like yourselves, are willing to engage the issues – especially the cultural issues – with such interest. Because we do have differences in how we dress, in the language that we speak, and in many cultural ways. But fundamentally, we are very similar. We are plainspoken, and we believe in the importance of faith and family.
So when we sit down together to talk about these issues, and the questions are posed, an understanding develops. And truthfully, this is what has held the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States together over the years: the bridges of understanding that have existed between people.
Because, as with any type of relationship, there will be inevitable ups and downs. If there is understanding that we, as people, want ultimately the same things – for ourselves, for our families, and for our children – then we can work through our differences.
I am fortunate that I have both the time and opportunity to undertake this sort of outreach.
I think I can attribute this opportunity to the fact that, right now, government-to-government relations between our countries are very strong. After two meetings between King Abdullah and President Bush during the last three years – and a lot of work in between – our nations have regained a level of understanding that existed before September 11. In many ways, our cooperation is actually better than it has ever been.
So on this level, my concentration has been more on reaching out to Congress. I have been working to answer their concerns and questions about the Kingdom, and express to them our concerns and our questions about how we view our relationship with the United States. I know there are a lot of issues on this level, as your representatives in both Houses of Congress are some of our toughest critics.
Last November, for example, a month after I officially became Ambassador, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe.” Frankly, I thought that was a bit insulting to Saudis because we have never been a foe of the United States. On the contrary, in the last 60 years, we have always considered ourselves to be good friends of the US, and felt that the US looked upon us as good friends.
I made a point to meet with Senator Specter, who chaired the hearing, and we talked about his concerns. They were mainly about education and the direction of religion in Saudi Arabia. I reached out to the Senator as a respectful friend. I made sure he knows that I am here and available to him – as are members of the Embassy and my staff. And in the future, he knows he doesn’t have to search for an interlocutor when he has issues or questions. He can come directly to me for a direct answer.
As I was preparing to leave for this assignment, I asked King Abdullah: “Your Majesty, how should I deal with President Bush and the American people?” He turned to me without batting an eye, and he said, “Just be frank with them.” That is the kind of relationship we aspire to have with you.
I am reminded of when I presented your Secretary of State with a copy of my credentials last September. I told her the story of Winston Churchill being a guest at the White House during the war years when President Roosevelt wanted to honor him by putting him up in the White House instead of Blair House. One night, Mr. Roosevelt wheeled into Mr. Churchill’s room and found him stark naked. Embarrassed, he tried to wheel back out. But Churchill turned to him and said: “Mr. President, the Prime Minister of England has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.”
I assured Secretary Rice that I was not going to come to her naked on any occasion, but that that is the kind of relationship Saudi Arabia would like to have with the United States. I think I convinced her.
And with that, I will take any questions you now have. Thank you again.