Saudi Arabia
Many misconceptions about Saudi Arabia remain in the West but there is hope that things will improve as we go forward Image Credit: Gulf News

One of the more challenging events I am sometimes confronted with during my travels and especially to the United States is when discussing topics of the day with the man on the street or the neighbourhood barista, my nationality comes up. When told I am from Saudi Arabia, there is a noticeable withdrawal of their bodies and a quick furtive look around to ensure that they have not been somehow surrounded by Arabs from all sides with ill intent.

Once that is done and they sense safety, then accusatory words are thrust towards my barely concealed amusement. Three words often define their understanding of what Saudi Arabia is all about. “Nine-eleven” is usually the first one followed by “Bin Laden” and rounded up by “Jamal Khashoggi.” The first two words settle well into their diction whereas the last one is sometimes difficult to comprehend given their understanding of the late Jamal’s last name.

Over time and with a great deal of patience I have learnt to tactfully deal with such exchanges. I begin with the horrible events of Sep. 11, 2001, that took place in New York City by explaining to them that Saudis were just as much in shock as the rest of the world as events unfolded before our very eyes on live television. The spectacle of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre sinking into a huge mass of rubble and dust was simply beyond anyone’s imagination.

A negative impression

Global TV audiences sat in silence as the events unfolded that day and suddenly Saudi Arabia was firmly implemented in the minds of many that particular day. It was soon followed by the name of “Bin Laden” which quickly garnered global notoriety. The fact that he was a Saudi simply cemented a negative impression in many minds.

To cement their beliefs the cry for Jamal Khashoggi’s soul seems to have pervaded into their reasoning, factoring that once again the Saudis had come up with a bizarre and irreprehensible action against a resident of the United States.

If during their rhetoric I surmise that there is an element of emotional maturity and understanding in the person I am confronted by, I will take the time to explain that the shock and depravity of the murder shocked the Saudi nation to the core, and from the King and the Crown Prince — no one would ever excuse such a grotesque act carried out by some rogue henchmen acting on their own impulses and devious plans.

Irrespective of what has been printed in many western journals of blame placement, I assure my addressee that such actions are considered heinous murders in Islam and the perpetrators who have been tried and convicted will have a very unfortunate hereafter.

That done, I assure the individual Bin Laden was perhaps a lone wolf who acted out his fantasies against a country who he held a grudge against for their participation in defence of Saudi Arabia back in 1990-91 against the Iraqi thrust towards Kuwait and seemingly beyond. To malign the entire Saudi populace for the actions of the one individual and his cohorts was perhaps an unjust generalisation, wasn’t it?

A lecture on the kingdom

During my recent trip, I was asked to give a lecture on Saudi Arabia to a class of middle schoolchildren in Southern California. Before accepting, I thought to myself ‘here we go again’ but I felt that discussing Saudi Arabia to kids barely into their teens and fresh from preconceived notions would in itself provide a good forum for dialogue and understanding.

And so, during the appointed day when I accompanied the principal to the classroom and was introduced to about 25 children watching me, I felt a tinge of apprehension at what to expect. But soon after the introductory pleasantries were made, I introduced them to the real Saudi Arabia and the massive changes that were taking place. Although I was prepared and waiting for it during the question-answer session that followed, many hands were raised but none of the kids brought up Bin Laden, 9/11 or Jamal Khashoggi.

Instead, some of the children wanted to know if there were shootings in our schools? Were there kids killed? What protective measures were our authorities taking to prevent gunmen from entering and blasting away at everyone in sight?

In the time remaining, I came to understand that when it came to Saudi Arabia, they all wanted to know if our school kids felt safe and how was building security, security that many admitted they were lacking.

Their unease about security was their primary concern and these were 13-year-olds! I told them that such events were totally alien in our society, and spent the remaining time on personal safety issues.

Meanwhile, there’s more to us than just three words.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena