Eight years ago I was living and working in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and al Jubail, a city in Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf.
I went to Saudi Arabia because, with 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers being citizens of that country, I wanted to learn, first-hand, about the country, people and religion.
Eight years later, I wonder what America and Saudi Arabia have learned about each other.
When I was in Saudi Arabia, I learned that there was a large amount of diversity, a point that still surprises many people.
There are liberal and conservative Muslims, with most somewhere in-between. There are Muslims that closely follow their religion and those who are admittedly a bit more lax. Some admire Osama bin Laden, but most don't. Almost everyone I spoke to liked American consumer goods, American freedoms and me, an American. It is hard to gauge what America has learned about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. I have heard someone say that he learned everything he needs to know about Islam on 9/11; this is like saying we know all we need to about America through Timothy McVeigh. I have many friends who have served in the military in Iraq and their opinions of the region are varied.
The public's awareness of issues in the region has increased, and more college students are studying the region and language than 10 years. At the same time, some Joe Citizens have become "armchair" experts regurgitating sound bites picked up from cable news networks. Fewer and fewer books on the Middle East are topping the New York Times Best Seller list; it seems as though we have stopped learning and growing in our understanding of the region.
This is a bad thing.
The region and people are constantly changing and this is still a vitally important country and region of the world.
China and India are increasing their need for oil consumption and may develop more of an influence in the region, possibly complicating U.S. interests.
Iran seems to be pursuing nuclear weapons, which would undermine regional non-proliferation. The future of democracy in Iraq is still uncertain as are human rights for Iraqi minorities.
Israel is on the defensive and the world on her back. Stability in the region is a distant idea, if not just a whisper of an aspiration.
What have those in the region learned about America? From my time in Saudi Arabia and hundreds of conversations with citizens from the region, a common theme emerges: America places its interests in oil first and above all else. America guarantees security to Israel but for what reason is a mystery. American culture is not evil but its policies toward the region are. And America will do as it chooses in the region because it can. This is not a very flattering picture.
Lessons to learn.
So, what are some of the broad lessons of the past seven years? As we go into the upcoming election cycle, we should keep in mind:
- Debate is good -- Debate is about vetting ideas and going with the best option (or least bad idea) -- more debate might have prevented the U.S. from going to war in Iraq.
- Sound bites are bad -- people form opinions with less than a full understanding of the complexity of the issue; this has consequences for our decision-making.
- What other people think of us is important -- as the U.S. looks to the future in international relations, it will be important that nations want to work with us more than our competitors. If we don't understand how we are perceived, we can't possibly expect to be well received. And
- Understanding others is equally important -- misunderstanding leads to opposition; understanding enables cooperation.
If we can get what we want without using payments or coercion, we will be much richer, safer and well respected.