From Berkeley to Saudi Arabia

Mar 27, 2011 No Comments

By Christy Stanker

Photo by: Jhong Dizon

“There is a long-standing, special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia”

I heard this same line over and over again during my two-week trip to the desert nation this past winter break. Our special relationship began in the oil industry but continues through weapons sales, military bases, and the “fight against terror.”

Despite this special relationship, Saudi Arabia still has a bad rap in the US. People here just don’t understand people “over there.” The stereotype that all women are oppressed, everyone is incredibly rich, and that all men are US-hating terrorists pervades American thinking about Saudi Arabia. This image could not be further from the truth.

In fact, I found the women to be highly educated and outspoken. The men are like men here; there are sweet ones, awkward ones, old ones, and young ones. I can say with confidence, I did not meet anyone who hated America. Not everyone is incredibly rich. Yes, there are some who are, but the typical Saudi family is middle class.

While Americans do not understand Saudis, Saudis very much understand America. Many Saudis have visited or lived in the US, so they have seen our culture and society. More importantly, Saudis know about “our special relationship.” We need their oil, and they need our weapons. The average citizen knows that we have a mutually beneficial relationship. Saudis are upset by the distorted image of “terrorist” that now falsely labels their countrymen.

The US-Saudi relationship began in the 1930s with the discovery of oil in that country’s eastern province. US engineers and companies financed the Saudi national oil company, Saudi Aramco. Today, the US buys a substantial portion of its petroleum from the Kingdom.

Currently, the US government and the Kingdom are in talks of a $60 billion dollar arms deal. This would be the largest foreign arms deal ever, and includes a package of F-15 fighter jets, bombs, missiles, and advanced radar systems. The deal is expected to pass through Congress with bipartisan support.

During the current uprisings in the Middle East and the resignation of both Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the White House has sided with democracy and people’s rights. However, our government will soon sell $60 billion dollars in arms to a despotic monarchy. The Saudi people may not deserve to be blanket labeled terrorists, but do not be mistaken, the Saudi government is no better than the Mubark or Ali government. The Ibn Saud family rules the country absolutely, and the views of the Saudi people are not represented by government rule.

The United States’ rhetoric of Saudi Arabia in boardrooms and Capitol Hill is clearly positive, but the moment the discussion reaches cable news or the op-ed page, that positive attitude is replaced with fear. The sweeping tides of Islamaphobia in the United States have not helped the image of the Kingdom. Americans are taught to fear the “other,” and an Islamic, non-democratic, desert nation is about as “other” as one can get.

Moreover, people have been led to believe that the extremism that was bred in Afghanistan was born in Saudi Arabia. It is a fact that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, but the Kingdom has itself been subject to terrorist bombings. They responded with an iron fist against extremism. Moreover, the US forgets its own extremism. Glenn Beck is far more hateful, extremist, and harmful than anything I saw in Saudi news or during my meetings.

The United States cannot keep having it both ways when it comes to the Kingdom. As a nation we must learn about Saudi Arabia and more generally the Middle East. The stereotypes indoctrinated into American culture must be forgiven. There is a “special relationship” between the US and Saudi Arabia. Despite the country’s despotic government, the US is heavily involved in the Saudi economy and will most likely remain so. The people of Saudi Arabia do not deserve the stereotypes we associate them with, and it harms both our countries to continue to propagate these false labels.

Spring 2011 For. Pol. Issue

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