- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2005

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Karen Hughes, the Bush administration’s top public diplomacy official, came to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve the U.S. image, but her hosts turned the tables yesterday and asked her to help create better perceptions of Saudi Arabia in the United States.

Mrs. Hughes, who is on a five-day “listening tour” of the Middle East, chose Saudi Arabia as her second stop after Egypt because of the “huge challenge” the administration faces in the nation that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001.

She sought an opportunity to explain unpopular U.S. policies that cause anger and resentment in the region.

Instead, she received an earful of complaints that the American people have wrong ideas about the Saudis and little is being done to correct those misperceptions.

“You have to abandon the principle of collective guilt,” said Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of the Arab News daily.

“Don’t dehumanize us,” he said during a lunch with Mrs. Hughes and American reporters that was hosted by the Saudi Journalists Association.

Earlier yesterday, students and professors from Dar al-Hekma College decried the way Saudi women are portrayed in the United States.

During a town-hall meeting with Mrs. Hughes at the all-women’s college, one student noted “a very negative picture of Muslim women that is created by the American media and supported by the U.S. government.”

A professor who had spent two months at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., denounced the local press for criticizing the Saudi visitors’ use of a classroom without male students, as Saudi tradition demands.

“We have a free press,” Mrs. Hughes said. She went further than many other U.S. officials do in such circumstances by defending the American press.

“I think that, by and large, the American media has held the standards of fairness and objectivity,” she said.

Then it was Mrs. Hughes who turned the tables, voicing concern about the “explosion of Arab media,” such as the Al Jazeera television network.

“I’d like to challenge them to enlighten, rather than incite” anti-American feelings, she said.

Mrs. Hughes noted that Saudi women are not permitted to drive. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deliberately avoided the issue when she visited the kingdom in June.

“I feel that my ability to drive is an important freedom,” Mrs. Hughes said to hundreds of students. “But I understand that your traditions are very different, and I respect that.”

However, the audience members, with all but their faces covered, continued their offensive.

“Americans think that Arab women are not very happy,” one student said in reference to perceptions that women are oppressed by the patriarchal society and their own husbands. “We are all pretty happy.”

Nora Barakat, a 21-year-old student, said her American mother, who converted to Islam when she married her Saudi husband, is “treated badly” in the United States because she wears a scarf.

Leen Assassa, a 19-year-old Syrian, said Americans should not pity Muslim women or judge them, but try to understand and respect their culture and traditions.

Mrs. Hughes, a close friend and confidante of the president’s — Mr. Bush swore her in as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs earlier this month — agreed that mutual understanding is vital for a better relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

She promised to increase educational, cultural and professional exchanges.

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