My visit to Saudi Arabia changed all my perceptions
Progress is rarely straightforward with unanimous support, and often invokes controversy and conflict. The late US President John F. Kennedy told this story to illustrate a point about change: “The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and wouldn’t reach maturity for 100 years. The marshal replied, ‘in that case there’s no time to lose, plant it this afternoon’.”
When I visited Saudi Arabia last month, I saw a desire for change in that country on a number of fronts. While the path to meaningful change can be long and arduous, I saw an urgency to begin planting, and the patience to know that the fruits of efforts will mature across years.
Caravans of progress take time to cross a desert of resistance. That has been true in the US and throughout human history. But American impatience can make us quick to judge the instability of changing times in other parts of the world. We often forget that nearly 90 years passed between the American Declaration of Independence and the end of the civil war, which violently yet finally bound all sections of the nation together.
When I was invited to visit Saudi Arabia, there was admittedly some hesitation. In the West, the Kingdom can seem to be a distant and veiled foreign land. But I decided to put macro-geopolitical controversies aside and go focused on learning from personal connections.
For many in a Judeo-Christian-dominated society, the Muslim faith remains mysterious and unknown. But one of my great fortunes in life was to be born to visionary parents. They led an effort to build an all-faith spiritual center at Penn State University that houses worship and office space for dozens of student religious groups, including a kosher kitchen, a Muslim prayer room and foot baths.
Being raised to respect all peoples and faiths, my journey began with a goal of seeing not where we differ as peoples and nations, but where we are similar. The trip was an unforgettable experience.
Saudi Arabia is a nation of immense beauty. From the mountainous Asir region in the southwest to the Diriyah historical sites, the Formula E racing championship and concerts, I met people of great warmth and generosity.
While I may have come believing it was a closed country wanting to turn its back on the rest of the world, the opposite was true in everyone we met. From routine interactions with ordinary people to bigger events, I found in the Saudi people a fierce pride of place in their home country.
Rather than being a nation closing its collective mind, I met many young people sent by their government to be educated in the West. Most shared a common desire not to remain in the West, but to use what they had learned to help build the Saudi future from within.
This desire was particularly strong among many of the women I met. They want to be part of the change they seek in the world, and they want it to begin at home, understanding that it will not all happen today, next week or even within a few years.
Obviously there are societal differences, but what I found is that the people of both nations are more alike than we think. Saudi parents spoke about hope for an ever brighter tomorrow for their children, and they place strong value on family. People I met spoke of national educational, economic and health challenges, and seeking innovative solutions to benefit all.
In nations such as Saudi Arabia, where so much income is derived from commodity extraction, the challenge is to create a sense of urgency to diversify the economy sooner rather than later.
The future holds a time when either oil production will slow, or the world will be less dependent on carbon-based energy. Saudis are trying to accelerate their nation toward a more diverse economic mix, and that involves welcoming tourists and investment from around the globe.
But as with the US and all nations looking to a new dawn, Saudis have diversity of thought and a vision for their future. Some have deeply held traditional religious views that are resistant to rapid change. They are neither right nor wrong — it is just how they see it.
Yet their nation’s burgeoning younger generation has never known life without access to social media, which brings the outside world to them. That insight inspires a desire to be the agents for the change they seek. And like the US, Saudi Arabia would have areas analogous to red states and blue states, much of it falling into a rural/urban and generational divide.
In my travels there, in cities and rural outposts, I saw a people and country that want the world to feel welcome to visit. The Kingdom is home to the holiest sites in Islam, and as such it has a long history of visitors from across the continents.
Located along the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, in ancient times it drew people trading between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Spices from these trade routes blended into the cuisine. At every stop I was offered coffee or tea with dates or sweets. Meals meant tables of food with exotic scents and flavors that lingered delightfully on the palate long after the meal was over.
As expected, there were deserts and palm trees. But I also saw palaces, old forts and stunning architecture, both modern and traditional. At a major concert, young men and women held up a glowing constellation of smartphones. I met communities who had lived in mountains for centuries. I drove up steep mountain roads and hiked above the clouds to tents where I sat on cushions and exquisitely patterned carpets while Bedouins chanted and danced.
We saw screeching baboons as they raced across the mountainside. On a gondola, as I soared to a 3,000-meter summit above the clouds, a canopy of stars unlike anything I had ever seen exploded across the night sky.
Saudi Arabia is a haunting place where legendary history thunders down from ages past. The people of the Middle East have a sense of history that stretches for thousands of years, and they are reminded of their past at the daily calls to prayer. The tradition at sunrise and sunset ties them to the earth and the natural world, but also to generations before them and those beyond.
I heard the call to prayer in dramatic settings, creating moments that will forever remain with me. Just after the sun faded behind the mountains or across the desert, at sites where people have lived for centuries, the call began and moved me to stop and reflect. How many generations had stood where I was standing and heard the same call?
While I did not understand the Arabic prayers, the solemn tone of the spiritual moment needed no translation. The place, time and call gave me pause to tap into the vein of shared humanity that I had sought on this journey. I recognized that I stood at a place where all that had come before was a river of experience and faith that, after a pause to thank our Creator, was the current that carried us to life’s next step and the days beyond.
Jay Paterno is a writer and consultant on politics, leadership, crisis communications and public relations. He has been a surrogate speaker on two US presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter at @JayPaterno