Robert W. Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says the kingdom is likely to be publicly nonchalant but privately stung by a recent State Department report that calls it religiously intolerant.
Publicly, Saudi leaders are unlikely to respond to being called “hostile” to minority religions in the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, Mr. Jordan said in an interview at The Washington Times.
Privately, though, Saudi leaders “are very conscious of their image” and likely to be stung by being added to such a list, Mr. Jordan, who is back in private practice at the Baker Botts law firm in Dallas, said.
It’s unlikely that Saudi leaders will make any rapid changes in religious practice, given the entrenched cultural views, he said. But there are many moderate Saudi clerics, businessmen and leaders who are likely to push quietly for change when conditions are favorable.
Mr. Jordan said Saudis are continuing to cooperate in anti-terrorism measures.
The May 12, 2003, Riyadh bombing brought home the realization that al Qaeda was trying to bring down the regime, said Mr. Jordan. “That was like their Pearl Harbor … it made it personal,” he said.
The kingdom continues to view the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq as occupiers, but will be watching the upcoming elections in Iraq closely, he said.
Saudi Arabia’s designation as a “country of concern” was made on Sept. 15, with the release of the State Department’s annual religious-freedom report.
Saudi Arabia and six other countries were cited in particular for engaging in or tolerating “gross infringements of religious freedom,” said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Saudi Arabia was specifically cited for being hostile to minority or nonapproved religions. “Freedom of religion does not exist,” the State Department said. Basic religious practice is denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.
Mr. Jordan, who served in Saudi Arabia from October 2001 to October 2003, said he had many discussions about religious tolerance with Saudi leaders.
“Allowing Baptist churches on every street corner was, of course, never a goal,” he said, but there are other actions the kingdom could take to demonstrate religious tolerance. There could be less discrimination and better treatment for Shi’ite Muslims, less angry rhetoric in mosques about Christians and Jews, and policies allowing private religious worship by those who are not Muslims.