Dr. Rogers, thank you for the kind introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be with you here.
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 have long viewed this interaction as the most important aspect of my job as Ambassador. I enjoy listening to and sharing distinct viewpoints. And I look forward to answering your questions after I speak.
But first, I was asked to talk about the current state and future of Saudi-U.S. relations. If the request were asked of me five years ago – or even three years ago – I would have had a very different answer. The events of 9/11 placed a heavy burden on our countries’ relationship; but one we’ve shouldered admirably.
Today, as a result of serious work on both our sides, there are a lot of positive things to say. After King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met with President Bush in April 2005 on an official level, relations between our two countries are stronger than they have ever been. What is clear is that the terrorists miscalculated in their attempts to drive our nations apart. They only stirred a resolve that has resulted in greater cooperation and coordination between us; and this extends far beyond the war on terror.
Indeed, our enduring relations are bound by much more than oil. We have a number of important pillars that support our relationship. Without preference for their order, there are six of them: the war on terrorism, oil, trade, Middle East stability, military cooperation and the longstanding interpersonal relationships shared between the people of our two nations – which have, in fact, endured longer than any official relationship. These pillars form our foundation. They define our interaction and provide us with concrete reasons why our nations continue to work together successfully.
But where do we go from here? How do we continue to improve our relationship? There are still many issues left unresolved. There are still many sticking points.
To address the challenges before us, and the challenges ahead, the first thing we have done is to put in place stronger links between our two governments and a framework to better manage the many complex issues we have on our common agenda.
The best example of how this is taking shape is the Saudi-U.S. Strategic Dialogue. This new mechanism is intended to institutionalize relations between our countries. It is meant to overcome inevitable differences and to align our resources and capabilities to a greater extent.
The Strategic Dialogue is progressing through regular meetings between the Saudi Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State – as well as among working groups from both governments – to work constructively and comprehensively on a continuous basis on a range of issues of importance to both countries.
The first meeting of the dialogue occurred during then Crown Prince, now King Abdullah’s visit with President Bush last year in Crawford, Texas. Since then, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Secretary of State Rice have met twice for the Strategic Dialogue.
The gatherings are open to candid discussion in a collegial atmosphere. There are also meetings of six working groups within the dialogue, which include Energy; Economic & Financial Affairs; Consular Affairs; Partnership, Education, Exchange & Human Resources – that is all one committee – Military Affairs; and Counterterrorism.
This framework is an important mechanism that we hope will endure. It has opened unparalleled levels of communication, and is turning out to be a key way our nations are overcoming obstacles and overcoming real problems.
We are also taking other steps to improve our relationship – beyond the very highest levels. Another initiative involves improving relations by increasing people-to-people interaction.
The Kingdom is encouraging more delegations of officials and business leaders and citizens to come to the United States to share their views and to learn in kind.
We have also expanded a scholarship program to send our students to college abroad. Many of our students will be coming to the United States. More than 10,000 are already studying here.
They will not only be receiving a world-class education; they will be forming the next generation of friendships and bonds between Saudis and Americans. They will be the true ambassadors.
I would say one priority we currently have is to develop better relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Congress. My Embassy colleagues and I have been meeting with members of Congress continuously for the past year. We have been working to answer their concerns and questions about the Kingdom and to express to them our concerns and our questions about how we view our relationship with the United States.
There are a lot of issues on this level, as your Representatives in both houses of Congress are some of our toughest critics. But as the saying goes: “It takes two to tango.” And here is where we would like to encourage more interaction on your end.
We would like to see more American representatives come to the Kingdom. We want them to see our country. We want them to meet our business community. We want them to hear from our citizens – our men, our women and our children. I am confident that if they come to the Kingdom, their outlook will change for the positive.
If you came to the Kingdom, you would see a burgeoning society whose citizens are urban and increasingly sophisticated. They do things like you do. They go university and Internet cafes. They travel extensively, and they have embraced their Saudi identity. You would also see the modernizing state in which they were raised and which they 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 the largest emerging market in the world. 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.
This is a much different picture than most people in the U.S. have of Saudi Arabia. It is important for Americans to be aware of the reality.
This brings me to my last observation on how we can improve our relationship in the future. I think the type of discourse that exists between the United States and Saudi Arabia needs to evolve and change.
We don’t mind being criticized. There is a well-known saying in Arabic: “Your true friend is one who tells you the truth, not the one who simply agrees with you.” But it is the way in which Americans criticize us – whether it is politicians or public figures or thought leaders – that causes us concern. We often hear political rhetoric instead of constructive commentary.
Americans want to see and hear about reform and change in Saudi society and political culture. That is on the agenda, ladies and gentlemen. But we’re not going to change just because you tell us to. We are changing and reforming our society because it is the right thing to do for our people and our country. And we will do so in our own way, in accordance with our traditions and culture.
Constructive comments are more helpful. Statements we hear from the U.S. generally do not have a clear and real understanding of what is going on in the Kingdom and appear to be emotionally driven. It is important to remember that your opinions, your thoughts and your analyses are not just considered by Americans; they’re considered by Saudis, too. And if we want to improve the state of our relations, it would behoove us to improve every level of our communications.
Our interests are too intertwined. If you look at the problems we are facing today – the war on terrorism, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, energy security, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – none of these problems can be faced alone. We must work together to find solutions to these challenges.
Recently, the situation in the Middle East has become increasingly critical and we’ve tried to be clearer and clearer about what needs to be done. This is important, because Saudi Arabia and the United States share a long and special relationship, one that is some 70 years old. We have always been forthright with one another. We have been open and honest. And we will continue to be.
Our relationship today has matured. It was tested by the tragic events of 9/11 and emerged stronger than before. Officials in both countries have recognized the need to put in place effective frameworks to further solidify our relationship. This effort, I’m pleased to report, is proceeding very well. And I am confident that the future of our relationship will be, God willing, a bright one. But first we need to act.
Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – and God bless you all.