JEDDAH, 28 August — When asked by the editor in chief to write on the subject of the much-discussed document now known simply as the "Rand Report", the obvious question came to mind: What can be said that has not been said already? Not having read the actual report, and only being aware of the generally reported synopsis of the report ("Saudi Arabia is an enemy of the United States that sponsors terrorism at every level"), all that can be written here, when addressing the report, is as follows:
1. As an American citizen working and living in Jeddah, I have observed that Saudi Arabia is not an enemy of the United States. The country I see with my own eyes is not the country I see on CNN. While many have disagreements with much of current United States foreign policy, and are very much misinformed about American culture and the mind-set of the average American, they view the United States with warmth, traveling there often to either take a vacation, or to pursue their educational interests.
2. Upon further observation, it has become clear that most Saudis are not terrorists, nor do they sympathize with them. In fact, the average Saudi is a generally lucid person who does not turn into raving, murdering, animalistic lunatic until he gets behind the wheel of his car. Rather than sympathize with terrorists, the average Saudi loathes terrorism as a form of brutality, which has unfairly stained the image of their nation and their religion.
If that is all there is to it, then the discussion would have ceased when President Bush denounced the report. The report itself is what it is: An analysis by a fellow who works for a private corporation, which has been publicly and forcefully rejected by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. The report itself is not a contribution to United States foreign policy and is, therefore, harmless.
However, it would be useful to shift the focus from the report itself, and take a look at the real danger — the factor that secretly worries most people in the Kingdom, and, perhaps, excites a few others belonging to a tiny minority.
The dialogue sparked by the report should focus on the fact that most Americans choose to believe the report. An inordinate number of Americans choose to accept the Rand Report and the word of its heretofore little-known author, rather than believe the most respected and powerful men serving in the executive branch of their own government.
If the maxim "perception is reality" has become a genuine truth in today’s world, then, for all intensive purposes, the reported synopsis of the Rand Report is a concrete reality from the perspective of the average US citizen.
Even before the Rand Report became public, the perception of most Americans since Sept. 11 is that Saudi Arabia is an enemy of the United States, and is a state-sponsor of Islamic fundamentalists bent on a campaign of terror against the West generally, and the United States specifically, using the money Americans spend on oil to destroy their beloved country and way of life. Further, the general impression in the United States — even before the disgusting events of Sept. 11 — has been that public schools throughout the entire Arab world teach Arab children to hate America and the West, rather than simply sticking to basic math and science, making the average American’s perception of Saudi Arabia one wherein the danger is institutional in nature.
After an alliance lasting almost seventy years, making it an older alliance than the United States now enjoys with many of our other close friends, such as Japan — an alliance which has survived an oil embargo (1973), an oil crisis (1979), and disagreements over Middle East policy (you pick the date) — how can the perception many Americans have of Saudi Arabia be so terrible? Certainly CNN, et al, do a fine job of picturing Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East as a whole, in the worst possible light. Of course, news networks do have one (if only one) limitation: No matter how much "spin" one can apply to a given issue, in the end, the networks can only work with the material they are given.
Again, I can say, with confidence, that the Saudi Arabia I see with my own eyes is not the country you see depicted on CNN. However, that having been said, as a nation-state, as an economy, and as a society of individuals, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia might be the single most inept entity on earth when it comes to public relations and marketing.
If one is to sit around all day and simply blame Western news services for the horrible image this Kingdom has obtained over the course of the last eleven and a half months, then it stands to reason, as a matter of logical progression, that such a person would be careful about providing those news services with the ammunition necessary to foster such an impression. Unfortunately, some of most vocal citizens of the Kingdom are doing exactly the opposite.
Just a general example: When someone chalks-up everything he does not like as being yet another "Zionist Conspiracy", he makes it absolutely impossible for just about anyone in the United States to take him seriously. Global power politics is not as simple and bizarre as the story-line of an Oliver Stone movie.
When an American first hears this bit, the general reaction is to think that the person saying such a thing is probably a bit mentally and emotionally unbalanced. After hearing it for the thousandth time, it just sounds sad, and is interpreted by American ears as, "My position is intellectually bankrupt, and I do not wish to engage in a dialogue of any sort, whatsoever, with you." Having spoken with many Saudis on both a personal and business level, I know that there are many in the Kingdom who are far more articulate.
There are times when this "Conspiracy Theory/Fantasy" stuff inspires anger in Americans. Generally speaking, I enjoy myself in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, I would simply go somewhere else. However, when I read in Arab News, for example, people in positions of responsibility being quoted as calling the recent $116 trillion lawsuit against the Republic of Sudan and individuals and institutions in the Kingdom a well-orchestrated plot to damage Islamic institutions, I almost hit the ceiling of my office.
I intend to write more on the suit in my next column. But for now, this will suffice: In the American system of Civil Litigation, regardless of the political proclivities of the attorney(s) involved in the suit, plaintiff’s are generally required before you can file a complaint for injury.
In this case, I seriously doubt if the widows and children of deceased firemen and policemen and the grieving parents of the young professionals of Cantor Fitzgerald and other companies care one way or the other about the success or failure of Islamic institutions. There are at least a dozen ways by which one could defend himself from this suit without displaying a colossal ignorance of the situation, as well as a callous insensitivity to the grief of the victims’ families. Insensitivity to the horror of Sept. 11 has not been displayed to me personally, face-to-face. Why is it being displayed in print?
A refreshing idea would be to present a factual defense, based on documentation and other forms of hard evidence. So far, what has been published about the suit by certain parties in Saudi Arabia only serves, in the mind’s eye of the average American, to make the named defendants more attractive targets for the grieving plaintiffs, not to mention the American population as a whole. Keep in mind, this case is going to be fought in the Court of American Public Opinion, as well as a Federal District Court in Washington, DC, and every unwise word put into print is going to be used to destroy Saudi Arabia’s reputation, in addition to the defendants’ respective court cases. There are, without question, Saudi citizens in positions of responsibility who can do much better than the above.
Another highly damaging episode: Prince Alwaleed, highly regarded as one of the world’s shrewdest businessmen, presents a check for $10,000,000 to the then-Mayor of the City of New York. Unfortunately, this check came attached to a lecture on American foreign policy. Just a tip — do not expect the United States, or anyone else, to simply accept a gift presented in such a fashion, no matter how generous and heart-felt the gift, especially when the entire nation on the receiving end is in the middle of coping with overwhelming shock, uncontrollable grief, and blind rage.
In the United States, the episode was generally viewed as follows: A foreign dignitary trying to educate the greatest power on earth as to our faults. To add insult to injury, the fellow treats the entire nation like a greedy sycophant that will do anything for a buck by offering us a lot of money for the privilege. While this is not a fair characterization of the event, this was the perception.
I will cut the list of examples short here, ending with the most recent and, perhaps, most damaging development: The decision to make America’s perceived (and, thus, actual) arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, the poster boy for Arab solidarity.
Just about everything that can be said as to whether or not the United States should topple the regime in Iraq has already been spoken and/or written. It is difficult to conceive of a scenario wherein President Bush will go back on his word and decide to leave Saddam Hussein in place. The most useful discussion at this point, should probably center around what the world might do to prevent a disastrous power vacuum in post-war Iraq.
Unfortunately, the unproductive mantra calling for Saddam Hussein’s survival continues on the argument that the removal of this thug will destabilize the region.
This only serves to confirm the already existing impression that there are serious flaws inherent in the educational systems of the Middle East, and will not engender any sympathy from the vast majority of Americans.
Also, as a general matter, Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, Ambassador to the United Kingdom, is quite correct in calling the United States a "wounded lion" in his most recent column, calling for dialogue rather than confrontation with the America (published in Arab News, Aug. 24, 2002, Page 3).
A wounded lion will see just about every animate object as an enemy — even fellow lions. To put yourself in the lion’s path is to make yourself, in the mind’s eye of the lion, the most immediate threat to his safety and, therefore, his worst enemy.
There are many erudite and honorable Arab leaders, and many worthwhile causes, which the Arab world can rally around without incurring the suspicions of ‘The Lion’.
The key to Arab unity is not to create a common enemy (in this case, the United States). Rather, the focus should be on resolving the many differences and disputes within the Arab world (many of them emanating from Iraq), and demonstrating to the remainder of the globe the very best of Arab Civilization (it is hard to imagine Saddam Hussein as representing the very best of anything).
In short, the flaws inherent in Saudi Arabia’s public relations efforts since Sept. 11 go far beyond a few backfiring television commercials. Just as most Americans do not understand the mind-set of the average Saudi citizen, most Saudis do not understand the mind-set of the average American.
Amir Taheri put it best, when he said that the US-Saudi alliance has been one which has existed as a leader-to-leader relationship, not one wherein the peoples of these two nations know each other, and know each other well (published in Arab News, Aug. 17, 2002, Page 10). He is correct, and, after all of these years, it is high time that this changes.
There are very small, but vocal, minorities in both countries who do not wish for peace, much less friendship, between the West and the Islamic world. The only way to relegate these folks to the positions normally allocated for minority fringe groups, is for reasonable people to become equally vocal, if not more so. The only way to ensure that our voices carry the maximum weight, is to first make certain that our voices are informed ones.
To that end, I hope this column helped in revealing, somewhat, the mind-set of the average American in these trying times: Americans, as a whole, are not "paper tigers" who are over-eager to please. Conversely, we are not ogres who run about slaughtering people without cause. What we are, are human beings who are willing to listen and learn — even after ‘The Lion’ has been wounded — at least until we believe we have been ignored and/or insulted.
To the same end, I hope to gain some insights from my hosts. Please feel free to use the e-mail address listed below to contact me. Kindly note, unreasonable ranting and crackpot conspiracy theories will be summarily ignored. Only those who wish to engage in a serious dialogue about current events and the cultural differences between our two peoples should invest their time in sending a message to the listed e-mail address.
After all, reasonable dialogue is necessary to educate each other about our different nations, and our very different peoples. Such a reasonable dialogue is the first step on the only path, which can possibly arrest the current deterioration of US-Saudi relations.
When not writing for Arab News, I generally assist foreign corporations who wish to directly invest in Saudi Arabia. Providing such assistance is a very substantial part of my job.
Therefore, when I write, I usually stick to issues pertaining to Foreign Direct Investment in the Kingdom.
However, beyond, and certainly more serious than, hurting my business by either turning-off or scaring-away potential clients, the current climate fostered by Western news services on one hand, and the dismal public relations and information coming from Saudi Arabia that feed said news services on the other hand, are effectively driving a wedge between our two peoples that will take generations to remove.
The sooner this nonsense is stopped, the faster said removal will be achieved. Until then, the Rand Report, in and of itself, is the least of our problems.
(Robert Jason Huf is an attorney, currently acting as a consultant in Jeddah. Huf welcomes responses to this article, and can be reached through his e-mail address at: [email protected])