Thursday, April 13, 2006

Saudis not Martians

The Saudi Arabian ambassador is talking a lot on his coast-to-coast “listening tour” of the United States, as he addresses community associations, foreign policy groups and university students.

Prince Turki al-Faisal’s goal is a simple one. He wants to explain that Saudis share many of the same values as Americans, that they are a reliable ally in the war on terrorism and that the desert kingdom and center of Islam is modernizing its society.

At the World Affairs Council of Seattle, he was asked what he would like Americans to know about his country.

“The first, of course, is that we are pretty much human beings,” he responded. “We didn’t come from Mars or Pluto, although we do wear skirts.”

He also said Saudis “have similar ambitions to yours.”

“We want a better life for our children and our grandchildren, to live in peace and harmony; that we want to be contributing to the betterment of the world, and we think we can be,” he said.

Prince Turki addressed what he called misconceptions about his country, including the role of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, the status of women, the nation’s modern economy and its initial steps toward some form of democracy.

In Seattle, former Gov. Gary Locke asked Prince Turki to discuss Wahhabism, which, he said, many observers think “is the inspiration behind Islamic terrorism.”

The ambassador said most of what is popularly known about their orthodox brand of Islam is based on “ignorance of and misunderstanding of where we come from.” Wahhabism is named after the 18th-century founder of the sect, Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, and has been called “puritanical and legalistic.”

Prince Turki said Wahhabism rejects the type of violence advocated by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network.

The ambassador’s tour coincides with the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, which has refocused national attention on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Saudi connection to them. Moussaoui is a September 11 conspirator, and 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis.

Prince Turki said his country is moving forward on improving the status of women, noting that women make up 55 percent of university students and own 40,000 businesses. However, the State Department, which criticizes Saudi Arabia for an overall poor record on human rights, says women face legal discrimination and still cannot vote in the limited elections for local advisory councils.

“We admit that we started a bit late on that issue, but we’re going in the right direction,” he said.

In a speech last week at Kansas State University, the ambassador compared Saudis to Kansans.

“We’re plain-spoken and straightforward, and we both believe in the importance of faith and family,” he said. “I know that these values are shared by the people of Kansas. Perhaps it is the vast, open spaces that draw us close to our God and our loved ones.”

Fashionable India

Most news about India these days focuses on the deal with Washington to provide the country with U.S. technical assistance for its nuclear-energy industry. An event at the Indian ambassador’s elegant residence this week showed that India also has a fashionable side.

Kalpana Sen, wife of Ambassador Ronen Sen, hosted a fashion show for the Junior League of Washington. Gail Scott, author of “Diplomatic Dance,” and families and friends of embassy officials organized the midday event on Wednesday.

“It showcased the traditional and modern garments worn in India and also some of the other cultural elements, like a classical dance form and yoga,” Mrs. Sen said. “It turned out to be quite a scintillating performance.”

The mild, sunny weather helped attract guests.

“The sunshine was probably imported from India, too,” Mrs. Sen said. “The day couldn’t have been more perfect.”

• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail

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