Delicate diplomacy

Saudi ambassador defends U.S. role in Iraq

For only the second time since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States held a news conference and also responded to questions from the Tufts community, denouncing Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, supporting America’s intervention in Iraq and defending his country’s treatment of women.

With the disclosure that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s appearance at the Fletcher School on October 23 drew print and broadcast reporters from across the country. Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have re-mained delicate, often tense. Issues involving lawsuits pending in the American courts alleging Saudi complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks as well as questions about Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a terrorist crackdown, democratic reforms and modernization continue to surface.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan© Mark Morelli

The prince answered questions from about 400 students, faculty and staff who jammed ASEAN Auditorium. Others watched on a giant monitor in the Hall of Flags that was set up to accommodate the overflow audience.

During the two sessions, each lasting about an hour, the prince was articulate and engaging as he touched on a number of areas. He was accompanied to Boston by the president of a Washington, D.C., public relations firm that represents the Saudi government.

The prince was unequivocal in his denunciation of bin Laden. “Everyone agreed he was evil,” he said. “I am more optimistic about the situation in Iraq than I see when I watch the media,” he said. “What you see now as signs of discontent, that is music to the ears of people who have [suffered] 35 years of suppression.”

When asked by an NPR re-porter why he had agreed to appear before the American media, he replied, “to prove that I am not a smart man.” He got some laughs when he referred to The Washington Times, which has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia, as “one of my favorite papers.”

Prince Bandar deflected mounting criticism by the American public over the chaos in Iraq and the wave of anti-American feeling abroad. “Sometimes you are a little bit too hard on yourselves,” he said, praising the Bush administration for ousting Saddam Hussein.

“If we, the Arab countries, could have done what America did to Saddam, I think that would be preferable, of course,” he said. “If Saudi Arabia alone could have done it, that would have been even better. And if the Iraqi people without anybody could have done it, that would have been the ideal. But the reality is there’s a cancer there, and we didn’t have either the tools or the doctor or the operating table for it until the United States came and helped us.”

While the audience was unfailingly polite, there was some skepticism among the students when one asked a pointed question about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, noting that “women can’t drive and have no rights to gather publicly.”

The prince countered that the United States, which he noted has had its own problems with women’s equality, was not in a position to judge others. “The truth of the matter is Saudi women today are much, much, much better [off] than they were 30 years ago. And next year, 10 years from now, they will be even more better. You don’t help the Saudi woman by making it sound like this is the Western thing.

“Leave them alone,” he advised. He added that in 1964, “zero women were in school. Today, 51 percent of the population of all our schools are women.”

A highly regarded player in the corridors of Washington and in the intricacies of Mideast diplomacy, Prince Bandar was appointed ambassador in 1983. Calling him “the senior diplomat in Washington,” The New Yorker magazine noted earlier this year, “He has served under four American presidents and has been the emissary to, among others, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Saddam Hussein and the Chinese government.”