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Why don’t Saudis project a better image of their country?

On a recent trip from Jeddah to Dubai, I was sitting next to a German gentleman on the airplane. After initial pleasantries, he said it had been his first trip to the Kingdom and his family were very distraught. He had to promise his wife to phone her every four hours to tell her he was safe. However, he felt that he had no reason to worry and that his three days in Jeddah were peaceful and safe. The only irritation he felt was the sound of blowing horns and careless drivers. Now, this man is a highly educated person who has lived in several countries. He was personally not apprehensive about his trip to Saudi Arabia, even though those around him remained very concerned. It set my mind thinking as to why this negative image continues to dominate people’s minds in the West? I know that 9/11 and several other factors contributed to it, but by now we should have moved beyond that. It is unfortunate that many quarters in the Western and even Eastern media contribute heavily to shaping a negative image of our country. And while we have tried to open up and reach out to others, we are still not able to find the right way to address the problem. After 9/11 many official and non-official trips by Saudis to the US were organized. However, the component of the people and the messages they delivered fell on deaf American ears. There may have been some polite murmurs by some American officials, but we did not handle the hysterical anti-Saudi and anti-Muslim tone in a proper way. Often we do not have a narrative to match that of those whom we are addressing. Thus our dialogue becomes meaningless. You don’t stand up and tell an American audience “we love you” a short while after the Sept. 11 attack. Because in their “perception,” “you killed” 3,000 of their countrymen. You cannot tell them “we are your allies” or “we love the Washington Redskins”, when they read about the extremist views of ignorant clerics. Once I overheard a gentleman telling a group of Americans that he loved New York pizza! He was naive enough to believe that such a statement would foster better relations. The people he spoke to had puzzled and cynical looks on their faces when they heard his remark. Other Saudis would attempt to patronize their hosts by telling them “we are like you!” Of course, it is obvious that this is far from the truth. I am sorry, but we are not like Americans. Yes, we have shared values and a few other ideals. However, what we should aim for is to explain the unity in our diversity. We also make the mistake of inviting delegations and taking them on a sightseeing tour, while failing to engage them on an intellectual platform and speaking openly with them. We do not explain to them that as a society, we too are striving to achieve a balance. We have our extremists just as they have theirs. However, we are now doing something about it. We should also realize that at times we fail to convey a solid presentation of our views because of a “poor delivery system”. An example of this was a talk given by an Islamic scholar in Arabic to over 100 academics at a renowned British university that was brought to naught because of a third rate translator. However, in order for the world to learn more about us, I am all for international journalists coming here and writing about our culture and our way of life. Let them see, hear and feel. We have nothing to hide. Some will write about women driving and the usual non-story that we all have gotten used to. However, many, if they listen and meet our young men and women, will also write about their determination to make this country progressive. They will write about efforts many in our society are making to better the lot of their fellow citizens. They will focus on individuals who care, appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of the expatriates who have done so much for the Kingdom. And yes, there have been scores of problems about maids and their mistreatment by some, but these journalists could also end up by writing about some families in Riyadh who brought a maid for their maid. Yes, we have many good stories to tell, but they are not about important officials. They are about the average Joe or Jane as they say in America. And they are meaningful and touching. But these stories do not get out. Why? Because our media does not focus on them and more importantly, because we are not good storytellers.


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