The National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) held the first part of its 15th Annual Conference today at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC. This year’s program was head and shoulders above last year’s. Congratulations go to Dr. John Duke Anthony, President and CEO of NCUSAR for the work he and his staff put into making this program a meaty one.
There were four sessions in the first day’s program, along with a luncheon with Saudi Ambassador, Pr. Turki Al-Faisal as the keynote speaker.
The first session addressed Taking Stock of the Saudi Arabian-US Relations, with Abdallah A. Alireza, Minister of State of the Saudi Council of Ministers taking the lead. He focused on Saudi Arabia’s needed to develop intellectual capital and how the new King Abdullah University for Science & Technology is intended to do just that. The school—now in planning stages—seeks to have 50% of its students coming from abroad and hope to include Americans in that number. Rather than a typical liberal arts school, it is intended to be more like the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in its emphasis on hard sciences, though not petroleum oriented. It intends to develop students capable of walking out of the classroom and into the world or entrepreneurship.
Alireza also noted, with dismay, that US imports into the KSA had declined 13% over the last year and blamed it on the extraordinary difficulty Saudi businessmen have in getting visas to visit the US and make deals. He also pointed out that US-Saudi relations need to move beyond “the industrial age” where commodities are the only issues at stake. As the KSA develops its economy to get beyond oil, the US needs to recognize the changes and take advantage of them. New opportunities are being created daily.
Three panelists then spoke: Ambassador Robert Jordan (for whom I worked 2001-2003) presented a “balance sheet” on the relationship. Among other issues, he noted that the war against terror and, more recently, concerns about a nuclear Iran have drawn the US and Saudi Arabia closer together. It seems that this issue is even starting to pull the KSA and Israel together, though whether or not that can be parlayed into something wider remains to be seen.
He pointed out that the developing relations with China are natural for Saudi Arabia and should not be seen as any sort of repudiation of the US. As the Saudi economy diversifies, its markets will diversify—China now exports more to the KSA than the US does, with India not far behind.
Saudi concern over Iraq’s stability is a major issue. If the country’s problems cannot be solved promptly, they risk dragging in neighboring countries, including the KSA, something it would entirely prefer to avoid. Saudis (as other Arabs) are watching the upcoming US elections, too. They don’t know what a change in Congress might mean for them and are concerned about any radical change of US policy direction.
Dr. Khalil Al-Khalil, Member of the Majlis Al-Shoura and Professor at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Univ. spoke next about educational reform in the Kingdom. He gave a history of education in the KSA, noting that its first curriculum and textbooks were Egyptian (this in the 1920s and 30s) and provided statistics about the numbers of schools and students in the KSA. He pointed out that the United States remains the first choice for Saudi students who wish to study abroad, even with the hassles over visas.
Education reforms are real and they are really taking place, he said. But reforms take time; they don’t happen overnight. He said that it would take 3, 4, even 5 years before their effect is felt.
Dr. Eleanor Abdella Doumato spoke next on “Teaching Islam”. She noted that there are still problems in the texts used in teaching religion. Curiously, though, she said, the textbooks used to teach “civics” (oddly, only to male students), is far more global in its lessons, telling students that they need to work on cooperative behavior, they need to work hard, and they need to work with kindness. Textbooks used in the 10th Grade discuss relations between countries and the need for tolerance. She found these texts to be a strength upon which the Ministry of Education could build and certainly should be teaching in the girls’ schools as well.
Dr. Doumato took exception to some of the widely published reports on Saudi education that have run through the American media, singling out the Freedom House report of 2005 (recently rehashed in 2006). She found misreprentation and factually false statements, as when the report said that Saudi texts don’t recognize Israel when, in fact, they do. On the same page the report criticized, she found both caption to a map and text on the page that acknowledged Israel.
The final panelist was Dr. Bandar Al-Aidan, who basically reprised the history of US-Saudi relations. Of particular note, though, was his comment that Saudi Arabia not only had cooperative programs with the US concerning Soviet expansion in the Gulf region, but also in Europe. I certainly want to get more detail about that.
I’ll continue with reports on the following sessions…