On Sept. 11, 2001, Yale public health professor J. Gregory Payne received a phone call from Prince Faisal Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. Al Saud, a former student of Payne’s at Emerson College, was calling to offer his condolences and to express the hope that he and Payne would remain friends, despite the cultural tensions Al Saud predicted would ensue.
More than just maintaining their friendship, Al Saud and Payne worked together to create an exchange program that recently brought 20 American graduate students to visit Saudi Arabia, including 10 from Yale’s Department of Public Health. The group went from Jan. 2 to Jan. 16, visiting a number of cities, including Jeddah, Riyadh and Damman. While it is extremely difficult for American tourists to get visas to enter Saudi Arabia, this group was granted access because it went with a royal invitation, said Amelia Shaw EPH ’03, who went on the trip.
The trip’s purpose was to foster better relations between Saudis and Americans at a grass-roots level by stimulating open dialogue, Payne said.
“I think the trip was very successful,” Payne said. “I think the students — came away with a better understanding and also a very intense friendship with some of the people they met there.”
The trip consisted of activities Al Saud planned, as well as spontaneous activities the students suggested. The students met a variety of Saudi Arabian citizens, from businesspeople to farmers to politicians, including Prince Turkey Al Faisal, who, unlike Prince Faisal Al Saud, is actually a direct descendent of the king of Saudi Arabia.
Andee Krasner EPH ’03 said she was surprised by many of the conversations she had with Saudis about their feelings toward the United States.
“They wanted me to know that Saudis took great pride in their longstanding, 70-year history of good foreign relations with the United States and that they did not support the renegade actions that 15 Saudis took on Sept. 11,” Krasner said.
Payne first met Al Saud when Al Saud was a student in his professional communications class at Emerson, but he only learned that Al Saud was Saudi royalty at his graduation in May 2001. After Sept. 11, Al Saud invited Payne to come to Saudi Arabia for a speech in December of that year. During a visit to a museum in the capital city of Riyadh, Payne mentioned to Al Saud that he wished more Americans could have the same experience, and the two began planning the Saudi-American exchange, Payne said.
The first exchange was in March 2002, when Payne brought 22 students from his communication and terrorism class at Emerson to Saudi Arabia, with Al Saud’s sponsorship.
This year, Payne selected 10 students from the Department of Public Health, most of whom were in the global health promotion class he offered last fall. Twelve other graduate students, many from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, also went on the trip.
Both Krasner and Shaw said there were noticeable differences between their preconceived notions of Saudi Arabia and the impressions they got on the actual trip. They said they were especially surprised by the role of women in Saudi society and by Saudi feelings regarding the possibility of war in Iraq.
“I was deeply impressed by the peacefulness of Saudi society,” Shaw said. “In Saudi Arabia, at least, we found nothing but kindness, tolerance and generosity.”