By Ray Hanania
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia last week shattered many of the negative stereotypes about the Arab world that persist in America, and have defined the contentious relationship between the two.
Before embarking on a tour of six American cities and meeting White House and Congressional officials, Crown Prince Mohammed appeared on the CBS TV program “60 Minutes,” which is notorious as the toughest news show in America. The four difficult questions Arab leaders always face but fail to answer properly, thereby undermining the Arab world’s credibility, were thrown at him by reporter Norah O’Donnell. But instead of ducking and dodging, he hit each one “out of the park,” like grand slam home runs in an American baseball championship.
What Crown Prince Mohammed is doing is not a game, obviously. He’s about bettering the future of the Arab world and building a relationship with the West based on facts, not the usual ugly fiction. He showed that someone in the Arab world finally understands how to speak effectively to Americans to reinforce the best interests of the Arab world using strategic communications, not confrontation or disagreement.
The first question Arabs face involves the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks and the fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis. Rather than being indignant at the question, as others often are, Crown Prince Mohammed took it head-on, explaining that the 15 hijackers were as much a threat to Saudi Arabia as to America and the West. He said Osama Bin Laden had a “clear objective… to create a schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America… to create an environment conducive to recruitment and spreading his radical message that the West is plotting to destroy you. Indeed, he succeeded in creating this schism in the West.”
The second question Arab leaders face regards the perception that Arab women are more oppressed in the Arab world than they are in the West. Americans conveniently forget that American women are oppressed, too. It took the US 64 years for all 50 states to grant women the right to vote under the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which was adopted in 1920. The last of the 50 states, Mississippi, ratified it only in 1984.
Native American women did not receive rights as Americans until 1924, and those rights were not fully implemented until 1948. African Americans lived in a state of limbo in the US from America’s founding right through to the late 1960s, when laws were passed to finally recognize them as equals. Despite those civil rights laws, many black Americans are still not treated equally.
But Crown Prince Mohammed didn’t throw those truths into American faces. Instead, he explained what he is doing to reverse years of restrictions imposed in 1979 after the Iranian-inspired Muslim Brotherhood assault on the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which killed 255 Muslims and injured 560 more. He said that, in response to the 1979 attack, Saudi Arabia cracked down on many rights to confront violent extremism, including closing movie theaters, banning music and dance, and restricting the rights of Saudi women — not just banning them from driving but also excluding them from business and preventing them from obtaining an education.
“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: That women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” Crown Prince Mohammed said. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for a woman to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
The Saudi Arabia of the past 40 years is not the Saudi Arabia of today, he said, and he ordered changes to allow all Saudis to live a “normal life,” including allowing women to drive, re-opening movie theaters, and encouraging the arts, music and entertainment.
O’Donnell forcefully re-asked the question: “Are women equal to men?” And Crown Prince Mohammed answered directly and without hesitation: “Absolutely. We are all human beings and there is no difference.”
The third question is always about “oppression” and human rights, this time with reference to the recent measures to address “corruption.” The West has a questionable record on human rights, and civil rights as well, yet Saudi Arabia and the Arab world are always held to a higher standard.
Crown Prince Mohammed explained: “Saudi Arabia believes in many of the principles of human rights. In fact, we believe in the notion of human rights, but ultimately Saudi standards are not the same as American standards. I don’t want to say that we don’t have shortcomings. We certainly do. But naturally we are working to mend these shortcomings.”
The fourth question involves the wealth of the Arab world, a question that ignores the greater wealth of the West. “Arab wealth” is always exaggerated as obscene, while “Western wealth” is associated with success and power. It’s an amazing hypocrisy considering that, on numerous lists of the world’s 50 wealthiest people, there are no Arabs. The lists are dominated by Americans, Asians and Europeans.
Instead of engaging in an argument, Crown Prince Mohammed answered with good sense. He explained that he spent 51 percent of his wealth on others, and said: “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself and I don’t try to draw attention to it. If some newspapers want to point something out about it, that’s up to them. As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela. I’m a member of the ruling family that existed for hundreds of years before the founding of Saudi Arabia.”
Years of Western misconceptions about the Arab world won’t be immediately erased, and his appearance doesn’t minimize the serious threats the Arab world faces from Iran, or the need Saudi Arabia has for nuclear technology to replace depleting oil resources. But Crown Prince Mohammed showed he understands the one thing many Arab leaders and nations fail to understand — that strategic communications, or how you present yourself, are important to the West. “Perception is reality,” and how you say something is often more significant than what you say.
This first formal introduction of Crown Prince Mohammad to the American people was a World Series championship.