Monday, September 11, 2006

John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia

I don't remember where I first linked with Crossroads Arabia, but I can tell you that I never blog without first checking to see what John Burgess has linked at his place. Bloglines will not track the site, but that is not altogether bad. It keeps this extraordinary link from acquiring that me-too quality that even the most outstanding places have when tossed together by an aggregator. [Update: Since this post was published the site is now available via Bloglines.]

His five-year anniversary post is a study in keeping on task. The events of that terrible day marked a turning point in life. We all reacted in different ways, but I cannot imagine anyone was unaffected. It is clear that John Burgess took upon himself a single mission, well articulated at his blog.


This blog’s purpose is to comment, knowledgeably, about Saudi Arabia, from an American perspective. It’s not about Saudi-bashing, nor is it an apologia for the country. Rather, it’s an effort to put that country into context.

I’m a former US foreign service officer who has had two tours in Saudi Arabia, 1981-83, 2001-03. I’ve had the chance to see the country with my own eyes and to meet with a wide variety of Saudis. I read and speak Arabic and have spent the bulk of my career in the Middle East, with assignments in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain in addition to those in the KSA. I've also had assignments in London and New Delhi, as well as Washington.

I believe Saudi Arabia, a country of some 16-18 million Saudis, to be a very complicated country. As with any country, there are good things and there are bad. Right now, the bad is what most Americans see. By focusing on that and neglecting the majority, they do disservice to themselves and to the United States.

There is more, but that about covers it. I know that a lot of smart people whom I respect read this blog. And the few comments he receives are evidence of an erudite audience. This man reads everything, but he resists what must be a powerful urge to tear people to ribbons because of their ignorance, choosing instead to stick with simple facts and the hope that eventually readers will reach better-informed conclusions.

Today's post summarizes Saudi Arabia's cultural and political changes over the past five years. I think it is fair to say that because the terrorists of September 11 came from that country, the crime committed affected KSA almost as dramatically as it did the US. It is as though a family member unexpectedly snapped and did something unthinkable. Threats of terrorism are underscored even today by new threats from al-Qaeda which include Saudi Arabia.
The five-year period following the tragedies of 9/11 has seen significant change in Saudi Arabia. Some of the changes seem small, but given the starting point, they are not. Some, in fact, are huge and suggest a far more liberal, or at least tolerant society is in the offing. Starting with my own observations from within the country—from late September 2001 to October 2003—I'm presenting links to various posts on Crossroads Arabia (which "went live" in 2004, after I left State Department), up to and including February of this year.
Much of Saudi Arabia, including high levels of government, were in complete denial about the 9/11 attacks. Some could not imagine that such acts could be undertaken in the name of Islam. Some could not accept that a Muslim could do such a thing, and certainly not a Saudi. Others, however, knew that all of this was conceivable. These were paying attention to the world and recognized that "one of their own", Usama Bin Laden, was quite capable of conducting these attacks. They recognized the hallmarks seen in the attacks on the US Embassies in Africa, in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemeni waters.

Saudi media became a cacophony of voices. Some saw 9/11 as some sort of fiendish plot by Zionists or by elements of the US government. Some believed Muslims, or Saudis, to be mentally incapable of carrying out such attacks. Others, though, realized that many Saudis had been radicalized by relentless messages of intolerance drummed home in classrooms, in mosques, in careless editorials.

Suddenly, Saudi media was carrying stories about political and religious issues that had, until now, been across the "red line" of taboo topics. The 9/11 attacks alone weren't responsible. Censorship of the media had been becoming lighter, with criticisms of some governmental bureaucracies, for instance, being permitted. Direct challenges to the way in which religion was taught and the way it infused daily life, though, were new.
This man is no apologist. And thanks to his professional background he has no need to defend his patriotism. Readers who want to learn more and get a glimpse of how diplomatic professionals approach conflict are urged to go to this man's site and take a look at his work. (Hint: It isn't partisan bickering, blaming or pushing for some transparently manipulative agenda.) I have only the greatest respect for what he has done and continues to do.

As a loose cannon blogger not subject to the same civil constraints that govern John Burgess, I will add my hope that his approach gains traction in time to avert yet another military/diplomatic disaster in the Gulf such as the one we now witness in Iraq.

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