Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
When I visited the United States of America in January 2006, it was Bush time! I was invited by the National Democratic Institute to attend the State of the Union address, and visit some of Washington’s top newspapers and think tanks.
In the corridors of these houses of power, I heard for the first time about the influence and reputation of the new Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki Al Faisal. Many politicians, journalists and academics were awed by his intellectual capacity and endurance.
The prince had visited 37 states, where he had given many lectures, two a day at times, and met with thousands of professors and students to discuss Middle East and Saudi-American issues.
The media followed his activities closely. They invited, visited and contacted him on a daily basis. “We had unprecedented access to the intellectual prince who was so hospitable and accommodating that we couldn’t have enough of him,” said a journalist friend.
Later, after the prince resigned his post, other journalists told me they felt sorry to lose him.
“He is a voice of reason, a torch of light in the Mideast jungle of haze and chaos. More years of him would have created a formidable lobby of friends and supporters of Saudi Arabia. Israel and Iran have built their network of support this way. Intellectuals paved the way for politicians and economists. You should do the same.”
I heard this and more from congressmen, community leaders, academics and pressmen.
How did Prince Turki manage to achieve this much in so short time? I asked Jamal Khashoggi, the ambassador’s consultant, at the time.
“Openness and intelligent drive to minds and hearts is the secret,” he explained. “The prince is an intellectual more than politician. His charisma helped. Tirelessly, he took us to one trip after the other, one city or state to another. We covered half the country, at least. Almost all prominent universities and academic institutes had invited him. He became a favorite speaker among researchers, professors and students.
“Helped by strong language and speech skills, he managed to drive home the right messages. At the same time, he was very accessible and hospitable. He met with almost all organizations and groups who sought to see him, including boy scouts and school pupils. In a couple of years, he had attended more social, school and media events than I could count.
“He did the same during his ambassadorship years in the UK. In continental USA, however, it was so much more. He sponsored events, chaired conferences, participated in seminars and hosted conventions. Day and night, workdays and weekends, his day schedule was full and exhausting.
“The fruits were worth it. In a couple of years the image of our country and society was much brighter. I am proud to be part of that productive experience,” said Khashoggi.
Today, we miss the like of Ambassador Turki Al Faisal and Ambassador Ghazi Algosaibi when we need them most. Ambassadors have more responsibilities than diplomatic and administrative duties. We need them to carry our culture, identity and message to the public and elites alike wherever they happen to be. Few ambassadors, like Prince Mohammed Bin Nawwaf and Dr. Abdulaziz Khojah, today, are playing such role.
The same is required of our universities, organizations and research centers. All Saudi representatives and emissaries shoulder the same responsibilities. They include diplomats, professors, intellectuals, artists, journalists, businessmen and students.
In addition, every government department needs a qualified media representative who could answer pressing questions, explain confused events and do away with rumors and respond to media stories, in timely fashion. In the age of social media and satellite TV, we need faster, smarter and more informative responses.
To help our representatives do a better job, we should provide them with professional training and accurate, updated information. It is not enough to have Arabic and English speakers. Other regional and international languages are needed, too. We need Farsi, Turkish, Urdu, Swahili and Malay to communicate with Muslims. We also need to convey the word in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Chinese. To bring our message across to the rest of the world, we should speak their languages and understand their cultures.
We also need roaming intellectuals, like Prince Turki Al Faisal, to attend every relevant conference and convention. Groups representing civic institutions, business associations and non-governmental organizations could greatly help in this regard.
Organizing and attending events, conferences and forums held locally like Jeddah Economic Forum and Riyadh’s Global Competitiveness Forum, or internationally, such as Davos and other business and cultural events, would also serve the purpose.
It is high time we do all of the above. Our country is great, our cultural heritage is unique and our message is universal, but our messengers are not vocal, active, trained or enough.