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MARGARET WARNER: And with me now is Tom Friedman. He’s just returned from an eight-day trip to Saudi Arabia. Welcome, Tom.
You have since 9/11 written a lot of columns very critical of the Saudis saying essentially they contributed to the rise of bin Ladenism. How were you received when you went?
TOM FRIEDMAN: It was interesting. Saudi Arabia has basically been closed to journalists since 1990, since the end of the Gulf War up until 9/11. And I asked for a visa basically out of the blue. They surprised me frankly by giving it to me immediately. How was I received? Well the average reaction of Saudis who weren’t prepared by the government to receive me was like this. You have to understand one thing. My column actually runs there in Arabic in one of the big Arabic dailies so people there knew what I had been writing, the criticism I had been making. This is the average reaction. Hi, I’m Tom Friedman. The Tom Friedman who writes? That Tom Friedman. You’re here? Yeah, I’m here. They gave you a visa. I didn’t come illegally. I’m here. You know, I hate everything you’ve been writing. Would you come to my house for dinner? I’d like to tell you about it. People really, really wanted to talk. They really, really wanted to get some things off their chest. I came to listen. But I also came to talk myself.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. What did they want to say to you?
TOM FRIEDMAN: What they wanted to say to me most, Margaret, was they feel that… two things, I would say: One is that Saudi Arabia, to be a Saudi Arabian was a pretty good deal. You know, you vacation in America, you send your kids off to America. You had a Saudi passport. It really was respected around the world. And some people said they felt just the shame and the anger that some of Saudi Arabia had been tarnished obviously by 9/11 and the fact that 15 Saudis took part in it. They felt that was unfair and they wanted to express that.
The second thing they wanted to express was about Islam, their conviction that their religion had been smeared or their curriculum was wrongly being branded as breeding terrorists, that they were being depicted as a factory for terrorists. So I heard all of that. I heard their, you know, their anguish in that regard. But I came with one question. And my question to them was, who were these 15 Saudis? Who were these people? I understand you’re telling me they don’t really reflect Saudi Arabia. They don’t really reflect who you are. Well then tell me who they are. Well, I didn’t really come away with satisfactory answers. I heard that they had been ordered by the CIA, by the Moussad by American Jews that they were educated in America. I heard every form of denial really, but I didn’t hear anyone say exactly who these people are. That still troubles me.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you have these conversations mostly in the privacy of people’s homes?
TOM FRIEDMAN: I had them in all sorts of places. People were enormously welcoming, I must say. I had them in people’s homes, in ministry offices, and at newspapers. In one case I was at the Okaz newspaper, which is the biggest Saudi daily. They had me sitting at the head of a table. They had a horseshoe with about 20 Okaz journalists, academics and businessmen. They had people connected by Internet and by telephone calling in questions. It was rock ‘em sock ‘em basically because frankly they’re not used to people getting in their face — or vice versa. They’re polite people. All these years, Margaret, basically they’ve been because of their oil wealth, they’ve been able to negotiate the entry of people into their country. And the people who got in were often businessmen who told them what they wanted to hear or approved journalists who told them what they wanted to hear.
Well, what happened with 9/11 is the world just punched a hole right through that door and said we are here; we are mad and we want answers. So there was that kind of a dialogue. They wanted to tell me things and I gave it right back. At Okaz, just by example, you know, they were saying to me why don’t you call Sharon a terrorist. You say we’re breeding terrorists. Why don’t you call Sharon a terrorist. I said let’s make a deal. Let’s have a contract right now. I Tom Friedman of The New York Times promise to ever more call Ariel Sharon a terrorist in my column if you, the Okaz newspaper, will call Palestinians who blow up Israeli kids in a pizza parlor terrorists do. Do I have any takers? No takers.
MARGARET WARNER: One thing you’ve criticized a lot is the education system. In fact you once wrote an open letter to the Saudi education minister.
TOM FRIEDMAN: Actually Minister of Islamic Affairs.
MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me.
TOM FRIEDMAN: Who asked to see me.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you see him?
TOM FRIEDMAN: I did see him.
MARGARET WARNER: Any changes happening there?
TOM FRIEDMAN: There are changes going on. I actually interviewed the Minister of Islamic Affairs. We had a nice meeting. And I promised in the future I would communicate with him through Federal Express but I also interviewed the head of a curriculum development in the Ministry of Education. They are working on the curriculum. They were working on it before 9/11 because they have their own employment problems, their own problems trying to prepare their young people for the modern world.
They were moving English education, which started in the 7th grade down to 4th grade and teaching more about the world beyond the domain of Islam, and he said something to me a little bit intriguing. He quoted a study. I couldn’t track it down — that said 85% of the curriculum in Saudi textbooks on the issue of Islam and tolerance in the world was fine. Don’t hold me to these figures but this is what he said. I couldn’t find the study. 10% he said was questionable and 5% he said might be misinterpreted. And he said that they were working on it. A lot of people, I have to tell you, Margaret, took me aside and said I hate every word you’ve written but keep it up, okay, because without the outside world knocking on the door — but they also tried to explain to me that in this society it’s very hard.
They feel under siege right now and they don’t want to be perceived as making changes just to satisfy some American, some newspaper, whatever.
MARGARET WARNER: Now one thing there’s been a lot of fascination with here is the role of women. What did you find on that in that regard?
TOM FRIEDMAN: I sort of saw every end of the spectrum of Saudi women. An American acquaintance of mine there told me a remarkable story. He was driving down in Aseer Province which is the rocky mountains of Saudi Arabia along the Yemen border. He was in a four-wheel drive truck and he got lost. So they came down the highway and they saw a van truck in front of them. They tried to catch up to it to get direction. Every time they got close to it, it pulled away farther. So they were honking – it kept pulling away. Finally they almost chased it around a building. The driver got out. As soon as the driver got out they discovered it was a woman dressed as a man in full Saudi robe and head dress because women, of course, are banned from driving there. They have 500,000 foreign chauffeurs. So that’s kind of one end.
Obviously there are a lot of stories in the naked city — I mean things going on underneath the surface that you wouldn’t expect. I toured a Saudi hospital. Remarkable. King Abdullah’s Aziz National Guard hospital, ultramodern hospital. Cutting-edge technology where they took me to the intensive care ward and I saw an elderly Saudi woman whoa they said just suffered a heart attack taking oxygen under her veil – the veil was covering the oxygen. It was a conservative elderly woman.
Then I was sitting just a couple nights ago with friends of mine in Jeddah, a modern couple. The wife was telling me, you Americans you’ve really let us down. You never push for political reform here. You never push for women’s reform — kind of going along those lines that harangue. Then her husband raised to me an issue I hadn’t noticed. He said did you realize that the religious police, the “Muttawa,” on Valentine’s Day, which for some reason is widely celebrated in Saudi Arabia, by Saudi youth — on Valentine’s Day went into all the flower shops and took out all the red roses so young people couldn’t give them to each other on Valentine’s Day. He said that’s an outrage. I asked his wife, well what do you think; she said she thought it was great. Because Valentine’s Day is a foreign holiday. It’s not an Islamic holiday or a Saudi holiday. It’s about globalization coming in and you’re basically undermining our culture and our society. The same woman who’s hitting me on political reform on one hand is defending the religious police taking away all the roses on the other because she feels it’s something that undermining her culture and cultural authenticity.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you have a chance to get out in the countryside?
TOM FRIEDMAN: I did. Actually the first day I got there I accompanied the oil minister who was taking the Norwegian oil minister to the empty quarter. Now the empty quarter is in the south eastern corner of Saudi Arabia. It’s the largest sand desert in the world. It’s the definition of the middle of nowhere. In fact you go an hour-and-a-half by plane over nowhere to get to nowhere. At the center of it is this new oil station very modern that they were showing the Norwegians.
We got there and the oil minister — Ali al-Naimi — is an exercise buff. And he insisted that we go for a hike on to sand dunes. They are 100-foot high sand dunes to watch the sunset. And he just — we took off our shoes rolled up our pants, walked on the top of these sand dunes. It is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.
This is a National Geographic centerfold kind of thing — absolutely spectacular dunes. The sun is setting. And I got two insights sitting up on that dune, you know, looking out on to nowhere: One was you can see how a kind of austere puritanical monotheistic religion could have been born there because when you sit on that do you know, Margaret, there ain’t nothing between you and God. There isn’t a tree to pray to. There isn’t a rock to pray to. Buddhism would never have been born on that sand do you know.
The second thing I got an insight to though is how isolated this country is. The first westerner only entered Saudi Arabia in 1906. And it’s a much more insular country in many ways. Yes they have got telecommunication now. Yes Jeddah has always been a port. But this is a country that’s really been involved in an internal dialogue with itself for a long time and geography has really reinforced that.
MARGARET WARNER: Final and unfortunately briefly what’s your bottom line conclusion having been there about our relationship with the Saudis, the U.S.-Saudi relationship?
TOM FRIEDMAN: Well, on my last night there in a meeting with friends, I really felt that the cultural-political gap between us is so wide sometimes I feel it’s almost unbridgeable. I’ll tell you after this evening I told them I leave here a little bit depressed. In fact I said could somebody find me a drink somewhere — moonshine anything.
I know liquor is banned here — because I really wish that gap was bridgeable — but I’m still not sure it is — not unless we both look in the mirror.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Tom.
TOM FRIEDMAN: A pleasure.