In the aftermath of terrorist attacks committed by 15 of its nationals, Saudi Arabia has spared no expense in trying to persuade the American public that its theocratic monarchy shares the values of the United States. The Saudis recently paid Qorvis Communications, a Washington, D.C. public relations firm, some $15 million to launch the most expensive publicity campaign ever undertaken by a foreign country. Yet the Saudi propaganda machine extends far beyond flashy commercials and silver-tongued spokesmen. Last week, a group of 10 students from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health returned from an exchange program sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Upon their return from the tour, made possible by the personal invitation of Prince Faisal au Saud, one particular student, Amelia Shaw EPH ’03, has proudly sung the praises of that regime. Unfortunately, what looked to be a promising educational experience has become just the latest exercise in a campaign of deception.
Rather than raise a hint of criticism at an autocracy that forces women to wear veils in public places and forbids them from driving cars, Shaw finds it more appropriate to launch her vitriol at post-Sept. 11 America. She told the Yale Herald, “If a group of 20 grad students from Saudi Arabia came to the United States, they would probably be fingerprinted for three hours in immigration, but they wouldn’t have gotten the VIP treatment we received.” Shaw’s moral equivalence between Saudi Arabia and the United States is at first meaningless, considering that Saudi Arabia is an apartheid state that denies admittance to non-Muslims, except when the visiting infidels are diplomats, journalists, the odd businessman or students in this uncommon “cultural exchange.” Yet concerning the specific objection Shaw raises, is it irrational for the United States to heighten immigration restrictions and tighten border security when 15 Saudis hijacked two planes and killed 3,000 Americans? As for her “VIP treatment,” perhaps religious and political dissidents currently rotting in Saudi prisons would appreciate to hear about Shaw’s luxurious two-week vacation care of the House of Saud.
Shaw also stated that “[the Saudis] are perplexed as to why American relations with Saudi Arabia are so bad in the media.” I would venture to guess that the Saudi Arabian government’s payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers might account for a small part of this strained relationship. In addition, nations whose leaders claim that, regarding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “I think they [the Zionists] are behind these events,” will not gain much ground with the American people. I would also say that Americans are generally disgusted with countries that outlaw the practice of all religions other than the strict Wahhabist sect of Islam. Shaw is back in America now and under no threat of decapitation for criticizing the Saudi Arabian government. It is troubling she has raised nary a whisper of concern about that nation’s abysmal human rights record or support of terrorism. Her silence is deafening.
While never having visited Saudi Arabia, I too am a direct victim of their PR shenanigans; yet unlike Shaw, I did not fall so easily for the Saudi con game. Last February at a model U.N. conference with my high school, I visited the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C., since we were representing the Kingdom. We were certainly exposed to the “VIP treatment” that Shaw so glowingly praised, seated in a plush conference room/theater, handed glossy information booklets, and shown a video extolling the virtues of Saudi society while tracing the history of Saudi-American relations.
As cynical teenagers, we knew to take everything that we heard that day with a grain of salt. Yet nothing could have prepared us for the rhetorical outrage about to transpire in that room. For about an hour, we were lectured to by Ambassador Gaafer Allagany, a former Saudi ambassador to the United Nations who currently serves as an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The first question posed to him concerned the prospect for peace in the Middle East. What followed was like a scene out of George Orwell’s “1984.” He answered that the Palestinian intifada represented nothing more than an innocent “resistance movement” and claimed that there was a double standard in today’s media (because of Zionist control, I assume) regarding criticism of the uprising. “No one criticized the French Resistance during World War II,” he claimed. “Why do they criticize the Palestinians?” There you have it, kids: Israel as modern-day Nazi Germany.
As a student of public health, perhaps Saudi Arabia’s efforts to combat the global AIDS crisis are of more concern to Shaw. One young woman representing Saudi Arabia on a mock-U.N. health committee asked Allagany about just that very topic. His reply? “We do not have gay people or lesbians in Saudi Arabia. We are a Muslim country, so we do not have that problem.” I did not know whether to laugh or cry at this remark, since Saudi Arabia has certainly tried to make this fiction a reality by deporting those infected with the disease and by executing homosexuals. Ultimately, not only did Allagany falsely claim that AIDS is a gay plague, but he also demonstrated the ignorance and repression of his government. Those gays who are open about their sexuality are publicly beheaded due to Shariah, or Muslim law, just as gay people are horrifically repressed in every Middle Eastern country save Israel. I guess the public murder of those “engaging in the extreme obscenity and ugly acts of homosexuality,” in the eloquent words of the Saudi regime, was not on Prince Faisal’s grand tour.
I could go on in further detail about how Allagany managed to bludgeon the truth for another 58 minutes, but you get the point. What was most amazing about the whole experience was how oblivious this man seemed to be in reaction to our astonishment. He honestly believed that his nonsense would fly with a group of American teenagers. Representing a nation that outlaws dissent and imprisons those who have the courage to criticize the status quo, he clearly had no conception of American skepticism. Unlike our counterparts in Saudi Arabia, we are constantly surrounded by the free and unimpeded flow of information and commentary. When someone tells us that gay people simply do not exist in Saudi Arabia or that Israel is akin to the Third Reich, we know these to be blatant lies.
Yet it is not the citizens of Saudi Arabia at whom I direct my anger. I wish they, like the rest of the Arab world, will one day be able to share with us in the joys and freedoms that only an open and democratic government can foster. With the impending liberation of the Iraqi people, this will soon become an even greater likelihood. I instead direct my anger at the Saudi Arabian government, which silences dissidents, inculcates its children with a hatred for the West in radical Muslim madrassahs, and denies its citizens a fair and open judiciary. Shaw gushed that, “[in Saudi Arabia], we found nothing but kindness, tolerance and generosity.” If your definition of tolerance only extends to Muslim males of the Wahhabi persuasion then yes, Saudi Arabia is a “tolerant” place. But by any reasonable standards of definition, it is nothing at all like the rosy utopia that the despotic monarchy paraded for the visiting Yalies. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian kleptocracy; its gang of princes robs the nation of its vast oil wealth, amassing huge fortunes for themselves while forcing their people to live in a miserable police state. I am all for cultural exchanges, but I expect someone with a Yale education to display a little more intelligence and insight rather than reproduce propagandistic rhetoric. The whole charade is disturbingly reminiscent of the Treblinka concentration camp, specially established by the Nazis as a “model” to disguise their crimes and dupe outside observer groups like the Red Cross. Shaw not only failed to see past the horse and pony show the Saudi government trotted out for her, but she came back to the United States as a walking advertisement for a corrupt regime, making Yale look like an utter fool.
Note to Prince Faisal: No need to cut that check to Qorvis Communications; you have a new PR flack right here at Yale.
James Kirchick is a freshman in Pierson College.