Thursday, July 2, 2009

Saudi Dress Up Time

Today a group of DoS interns and I went to the Saudi Arabian Embassy for a "tour." I put the word tour in quotes because it wasn't so much a tour around the embassy as it was a walk to the theater room to watch a video on Saudi Embassy and dress up time. The embassy was of course very nice. The video was about 15 minutes long and showed the basics, Saudi's scenery, its architecture, its culture, its health care system and, of course, its royalty. After the video, a half Saudi, half American man with a very new york accent told us about the great Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was interesting coming from a man who grew up in New York and clearly wasn't a conservative Muslim. Our guide opened the forum open to questions, which started off with "Is it true one has to be invited to get a visa to visit Saudi Arabia?" The answer was basically yes. He talked of how the country was trying to open up to tourism, but taking baby steps there. He explained that the country gave out group visa's for set and approved tour groups. No individual visa's were yet given for travel. Slipping in a Public Diplomacy question, to a man I wasn't sure would know what PD was, I asked how the embassy was reaching out to the American public to present Saudi Arabia to the public? I was right to be unsure, as he basically told me they hired an outside firm to do "all that stuff".. "it wasn't handled inside the actually embassy. I thought back to Dr. Geoffrey Wiseman's class discussion on lobbying firms and how they represent countries such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, I knew of course the event I was sitting in was part of the embassy's Public Diplomacy strategy, as were the organized group tours to the country, probably perfectly orchestrated to show the best side of Saudi. Our guide did mention the embassy did participate in cultural festivals around the country to share Saudi culture. A fellow colleague asked about the constitution of Saudi- The Koran is the official "constitution", however, about 15 years ago, after the first gulf war, Saudi did write a basic governing structure.From there the interns started getting a little more courage and asked the questions we all wanted to ask but didn't want to be "that guy." Many women in the group brought up human rights and women's rights questions. Surprisingly, I felt our guide was pretty honest and candid (as much as he could be), in answering our questions. (or maybe MY misperceptions have tainted my view) He acknowledge that Saudi isn't on the top of the praise list as far as human rights go. "The State Department knocked us down a little." He talked of how Saudi should be seeing the role of women change as the "younger generation of women become educated and "get out of the kitchen." He talked of women diplomats, bankers and such. "It's up to the women, some are comfortable with the traditional role" of being a housewife and a mother. "It would be nice to see them have the option. And they do. It's a welcome change."

One intern asked how the Saudi people feel about American culture, music, fashion, dress, etc. He assured us that the "majority of people like US culture" and are not offended by it, but it was true a "few" extreme people are offended by it. He insisted that most Saudi's watch American TV and listen to our music.

There was more discussion on how the events of 9/11 affected the country especially since some of the attackers were Saudi citizens. "We want Americans to know we do not support those people," he insisted. He told of how he was sure Bin Laden recruited Saudi's "to drive a wedge between the US-Saudi relationship." And that Al Qaeda wants to see the Saudi government fall "Before the US criticized Saudi for suppressing dissidents. After 9/11 they criticized us for not doing enough to suppress them."
He talked of all that Saudi was doing in conjunction with the US to combat terrorism, even dismissing clerics who preached anything that contradicts the Saudi "vision of peace."

He then brought the Q&A to a break because another man had entered and asked for 4 female and 2 male volunteers. I jumped at the chance to participate in God knows what. We were asked to follow the man into the back room and dress in traditional Saudi dress. We then modeled the beautiful clothes to the crowd for our cultural lesson. Which was fun but disappointing since we were asked to leave all camera's and phones with security. And that concluded our "tour" of the embassy. Interesting.. but defiantly more to be desired.

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