Event Date: 12/14/2007
Mathew in Texas writes:
Are the U.S.-Saudi Student Exchange programs likely to introduce any kind of social change within Saudi Arabia?
Exchange programs are designed to foster mutual understanding between two countries' people, in this case the United States and Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi alumni of our exchange programs have described their experiences in the U.S. as "life-changing," and many have returned to Saudi Arabia to assume leadership positions in schools and universities, business, government, and volunteer organizations. Alumni tell us that they use the knowledge, skills, and networks they gained in the U.S. to contribute to their communities in various ways. We know that Saudi students add to our culturally rich learning environments in the U.S., and we're happy to see alumni making such a positive impact in their society.
Dieter in Germany writes:
Are there U.S. students going to Saudi Arabia within these exchange programs? What do you hope these students can learn there with regard to cultural differences?
Dieter, unfortunately, right now we don't have American students studying in Saudi Arabia on official U.S. government programs due to our heightened security posture. Personally, I would love to see American students studying here in government-sponsored exchange programs in the near future. University professors teaching here tell me they want to see American students in their classrooms. I've also heard that a number of Saudi families - especially those whose children have studied in the U.S. - are eager to host American students in their homes. Just like Saudi students can learn a lot in America, Americans can learn a lot from Saudi as well. By sharing our cultures, we can foster better mutual understanding.
Susan in Jerusalem writes:
Why does the U.S. support any student exchanges with Saudi Arabia, a country that denies basic human rights to all women, and denies religious freedom altogether to anyone who is not Muslim? This is an affront to American values of human rights, freedom of religion, democracy and violates all American principles in our Constitution and Bill of Rights!
Promoting human rights is one of our foreign policy priorities, and the United States remains concerned about human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S., we have always welcomed students from diverse backgrounds and nationalities because we are an open and welcoming society. By studying in the U.S., Saudi students have the opportunity to learn about our culture of democratic values, religious tolerance and respect for all members of our society. When they return home, they can share their experiences and observations with their families and friends. We also hope that Saudi students can give a fuller and more informed picture about their society, value and culture to their American friends.
Martin in Germany writes:
What main purpose do the U.S.-Saudi Student Exchange Programs have?
Do you think Saudi students can be fascinated by a democratic and free system which they do not have at home? Is this a part of President Bush´s freedom agenda?
Our exchange programs allow Saudi students to experience U.S. culture and people directly, while earning a world-class education. Saudis who come to the U.S. return to their country with first-hand and personal experience with the U.S. and their American friends. This experience, which they share with their families and friends when they return home, is often a great contrast to the pre-conceived ideas they have gathered from the local media. The alumni I have met tell me they are fascinated by many aspects of the United States, including our democratic system and our diversity. Another important goal of our programs is for Americans to learn more about Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world from Saudi students. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are strong global allies and close economic partners. Student exchanges deepen our friendship and strengthen this alliance.
Ian in Texas writes:
Ambassador, with Middle Eastern expertise of such value to the Department of State, have you been able to coordinate development and/or public diplomacy efforts with any American NGOs working in Saudi Arabia?
At present there are no American NGOs officially registered in Saudi Arabia, so we do not coordinate with the NGO community as may be common in other countries. However, the U.S. Mission to Saudi Arabia is actively engaged with the people of Saudi Arabia through a variety of public diplomacy programs like the International Visitor Leadership Program, the Fulbright Fellowship programs, and educational advising, which prepares Saudi students to study in America. You should also know that my team here in the Embassy and at our two Consulates General has extensive experience and expertise in this region. Many of our officers have excellent Arabic language skills, and a good number have worked in the region for extended periods of time. Many of our colleagues have also worked or studied in the region prior to joining the Foreign Service, and some officers have advanced degrees in Islamic or Middle Eastern studies.
Rodney in North Carolina writes:
Will United States citizens who attend Saudi universities as part of the exchange program have freedom to observe their own religious practices or will this be prohibited under this new appeasement plan?
Thanks for your question, Rodney. The United States and Saudi Arabia have participated in exchange programs for decades. The goal of these programs has always been to foster mutual understanding between Americans and people from other cultures, in this case Saudi Arabia. I believe we have been quite successful in achieving this goal. For example, Saudi students witness firsthand our society's respect for religious diversity, which has a positive impact on their views.
I will say a well-known concern of the U.S. government is that Saudi law does not encourage religious freedom. Non-Muslim American students studying in Saudi Arabia may not have the right to practice their religion freely and openly, but the Saudi government has stated that individuals have the right to worship privately and many Americans expatriates do so. We of course, advocate that religious tolerance become a goal here, especially as the government continually seeks to attract first-rate educators and researchers from abroad. We were heartened by King Abdullah's meeting with the Pope last month which certainly sends a positive signal.
Michael in California writes:
What can Saudi Arabia begin to do to halt the spread of the so-called "Wahabism" doctrine of Islam? Isn't this one of the most radical forms of Islam that seeks to destroy the West?
Michael, thank you for your question. I can tell you the government of Saudi Arabia is a strong U.S. ally in the fight against extremism, and many Saudi religious leaders continue to stress moderation, from the mosque sermons to the mass media. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia himself has made very public statements to encourage moderation. Many other influential clerics have also come forward to denounce terrorist acts and promote moderation.
You should also know that your government is doing its part as well. The House of Representatives passed House Resolution 365 to recognize the holy month of Ramadan and express respect for Muslims in the U.S. and throughout the world. This resolution received extremely favorable media coverage here in Saudi Arabia, and showed that we stand together with the true Islam in fighting extremism of all kinds.