In his first appearance on a western broadcasting network since becoming King, Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz spoke to Barbara Walters of ABC about the major issues related to Saudi Arabia on both a regional and international level. He discussed oil prices, the position of the largest oil producer towards the increase in oil prices, Iraq, Iranian interference, Iranian nuclear power, and finally, the central issue for many Saudis and observers of the Kingdom, the post September 11 world; its challenges; and new pressures on Saudis. These new pressures have emerged because fifteen of the suicide hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens.
Since these attacks, the American media, followed by the Western and finally the international media waged a fierce campaign that focused on Saudi Arabia. Ever since, they have closely inspected the Saudi mind and intricately studied the features of the Saudi society. Many Saudis were thus annoyed for the global attention paid to Saudi Arabia. The fact is that the American media leading the western media never actually left the Saudi alone. In addition to them, came the studies by research centers and think tanks.
Saudi Arabia will not be left alone for a long time because many facts have arisen since the twin towers of New York were destroyed and the Pentagon (which is the power center of the American force) was attacked. American, Western, and even Japanese journalists have lined up to study and write about the Saudi Arabia. Their appetite for knowledge about the Kingdom and its citizens has increased to the extent that everything is studied. Research has been conducted into: political reform, foreign policy, the details of the ruling family, the economy and oil, the role of the clergy, the condition of the Shia, the role of the media, the societal forces, the Islamists, Al-Qaeda, the security situation in Iraq and its effect on Saudi Arabia, the youth volunteering for Jihad in Iraq and Saudi, the Saudi opposition abroad (i.e. Al Massa”ari, Al Faqih, Al Meqren.), the status of women, elections, the consultative council, municipal elections, reform of education and so forth.
From where have these issues sprung? These challenges have always been present and no sane person could ever claim that they never existed and that Saudi Arabia prior to the 9/11 attacks was perfect. What has happened is that the issues that could have been addressed in good time have now become urgent. The new urgency has not emerged due to a certain party, but rather because a new chapter of history is unfolding before us. A promising world in the field of human history where imagination and discourse were valid and or effective has evolved.
Some of those who naturally find it difficult to accept these changes seek to ignore reality. They say, "A terrorist operation took place in America. Many more have preceded it and many will come after it. Are we required to change our skin because America is furious about September 11?" What is required in fact is something close to this, albeit not in the cultural or religious sense inferred by the expression "change our skin" which concerns many, but is the sense of leaving a certain way of thinking behind and adopting another. We should rise to the new challenge by getting involved positively to be able to pass beyond this stage for one cannot pass through something without getting involved.
Saudi was not the only country to fall under the pressures of September 11. On a range of levels, the entire world did. Getting rid of such pressures then becomes the core goal of Saudi policy. The responsible policy may have to make unpopular decisions at some points in the interest of the public. This is the way to understand King Abdullah”s reference for example, to the issue of reform of women”s status in the Kingdom when he stated that the reform would come about but only with patience. Patience for what? Does he mean patience for the traditional thoughts of the society towards this issue? The ancient as well as the modern histories of the Arab world informs us of several decisions that conflicted with public will. We know that several factors maintained by many political parties are responsible for the creation of the "public sentiment."
The rare interview of the King with Barbara Walters is part of Saudi interaction in this new era. For example, the king openly admitted that there is extremism within the Saudi educational curriculums. Yet, he also said that we have managed to mitigate it considerably. He also, more significantly noted that extremism was present in other curriculums such as that of Israel for example. The interview was a well-balanced and responsible discussion with a King who is accustomed to clarity and sincerity, which are what his citizens expect also. With regards to religious education, Saudi has witnessed numerous debates and lengthy discussions and undoubtedly positive changes and developments have occurred in this respect. Nevertheless, the matter is not over yet and we still have a long way to go. For example, I came across page 15 in the 2005-2006 curricula for 8th grade students that said, "Zaid saw an infidel who was walking on the road, so he hit him."
The King also highlighted unjust media campaigns against his country accusing it of supporting terrorism. He denounced this claim and said, "How could we support terrorism and engage in fighting it simultaneously?" The King makes a valid point as evidence has shown that Saudi Arabia has lost and continues to lose many of its members of the security forces in the battle against terrorists. The open and logical discussion of such issues through Western media is far better than neglecting such issues and accusations especially considering that many accusations are false.
At the same time, to put our opinions across successfully and to reach a practical conclusion, we should avoid continuous defense. We are a society of human beings and a large state that faces many challenges that has a large population of young people. Moreover, we have only recently begun to open up to international media and communications. Also, we are at the heart of conflicts in the Middle East, most recently Iraq and possibly that of Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia is a state unaccustomed to competing ideologies and political differences with the dominant rule.
Due to all of the above, it is only natural that we face real questions and challenges. In my assessment, the interview of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz is among the best ways to manage and explain the Saudi position and is far better than remaining silent. It is also far better than emotional and defensive reaction to Western media and accusing it of defamation or being resentful towards Saudi Arabia. The interview represented a discussion that maintains interests and at the same time refutes fallacies. The language used acknowledged reality and sought to provide answers. On top of it all, the head of state rationally explained all that others whisper or repeat in a hostile tone. This is the sincere and clear talk of the king. I believe that his actions are as clear, direct, and as practical as his words. Thus, we have a lively Saudi discourse that both affects and is affected by the present atmosphere.