Fowler Assures Davidson Audiences of Saudi Support, and Urges Sensitivity to Arab Needs
November 30, 2001
One of the college's most prominent alumni diplomats, Amb. W. Wyche Fowler '62, visited campus recently to share insights he gained as the country's top emissary to Saudi Arabia from 1996-2001. In a public lecture, meetings with the press, and a luncheon for alumni at the Charlotte law firm, Smith Helms Mullis and Moore, Amb. Fowler emphasized the Saudi affinity for the United States and that country's absolute cooperation in fighting terrorism.
"We are justifiably proud that Saudi Arabia has been our solid ally for 60 years," he said. He said the Saudis developed good relationships with the Western oil companies that came to the country beginning in the 1930s, and have depended on American construction firms like Bectel to build their modern nation. In addition, the United States is known as "the only colonial power who didn't try to come to the Mideast and stay."
Amb. Fowler said, "They invited our troops onto their territory to fight Saddam Hussein, battled him alongside us, have worked to stabilize oil prices, and as many as 30,000 of their young people study in this country every year. It's a partnership of shared interests and, in many cases, shared values."
Following a 16-year career as an elected representative from the State of Georgia to the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, Amb. Fowler served four-and-a-half years as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He left that post last April, and has recently been named chair of the board of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. That organization works to increase Americans' knowledge and understanding of the region through program activities, language courses, scholars-in-residence, and an academic journal.
Fowler recently received the FBI's highest civilian honor for his assistance in solving the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He was invited to campus by the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies, and presented a public lecture on "The Roots of Terror: Saudi Arabia and the Current Crisis."
He emphasized that terrorism isn't a battle between Islam and the West, but between Islamic moderates and Islamic fundamentalists. "The terrorists don't see the West as the enemy, but are fighting westernizing influences that are bringing modernity to Muslim lands," he said. "Osama bin Laden says he rejects all aspects of modernity, and cloaks it in terms of religion. He wants to recreate a pure Islamic society as it existed in the seventh century under the prophet himself."
Amb. Fowler said the roots of terror lie in resentments and grievances held by the Islamic fundamentalists. Foremost among them is the Western emancipation of women, which they say leads to a high divorce rate, juvenile delinquency, sexual permissiveness, and toleration of pornography. "In Islamic lands people identify themselves not with a country or tribe, but primarily with a family," Amb. Fowler explained. "They believe the emancipation of women would bring about the deterioration of the family."
They also resent the separation of church and state. Islam interprets the Koran as the word of God as it was directly dictated to the prophet Mohammed. Though believers also acknowledge Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as prophets, they contend that it was Mohammed who received God's final and definitive revelation. Coming directly from Allah, they contend that the Koran cannot be questioned. "To have a civil government whose highest priority isn't serving God is beyond their comprehension," he said.
Among grievances, fundamentalists criticize the Saudi regime for allowing Western "infidels" to station their armed forces on "holy ground." To help deflect that claim, the Saudi king has restated his royal title as "Custodian of the Two Holy Places" to make clear that he takes his protective role over Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holy cities, as his highest duty.
The fundamentalists also accuse the U.S. of dictating world oil policies, and of pressuring producers like Saudi Arabia to sell at a low price so Americans can afford gas-guzzling cars and not be bothered with greater conservation efforts.
In addition, the U.S. is accused of supporting unpopular Middle Eastern regimes at the expense of the man in the street, such as was the case with the Shah of Iran.
Most importantly, Fowler said terrorism is feeding on the resentment over a perception that America overwhelmingly supports the Israelis in their dispute with the Palestinians. The Palestinian struggle for a homeland with secure and safe borders has become as much a cause celebre in the Arab community as support for Israel has become for Jews around the world, Amb. Fowler said. Whether Arabs agree with the policies of Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat or not, they rally to the cause. For that reason, Amb. Fowler said, it is vital that President George Bush get peace talks started again. "The parties cannot separate themselves," he said. "Europeans have tried, but the United States is the only country with enough clout to restart the negotiations. That conflict isn't the cause of terrorism, but we won't eliminate it until we resolve that dispute."
Amb. Fowler also stressed that the President and his aides need to continue to fight terrorism with an international alliance. Once the fight is over in Afghanistan, he warned the administration against striking out on its own in Iraq. "Any plans to go into Iraq would open wounds in the Arab world that we don't want to deal with," he said.
He continued, "One of our problems is that we're telling the people who live next door to Iraq that they should be afraid of Sadaam's weapons of mass destruction, but they aren't afraid of him. Sadaam had a chance to use them in the Gulf War and didn't do so because he knew we'd wipe him off the face of the earth if he did. His Arab neighbors believe the U.S. so thoroughly devastated his armed forces and did such a macho psych job on him then that he knows better than to arouse another U.S.-Arab coalition. His neighbors can't stand him, but they don't understand why we won't leave him alone. They're also fearful of the breakup of the country into feuding ethnic groups if and when Sadaam is ousted."
Amb. Fowler was a charter member of the House Intelligence Committee when it was formed in 1978, and also served on the Senate intelligence committee. He said the possibility of terrorist attacks on America has long been feared by many officials. He noted that European countries have suffered terrorism ever since World War II, from the IRA in Britain to the Basque separatists in Spain to the Bader Meinhoff Gang in Germany. "What makes September 11 so insidious is the targeting of civilians," he said. "The terrorists had no grievances against those people."
He also noted that it's distressing, but not surprising, that those involved were well-educated. He said political violence has often been fomented by educated people because they are less accepting of the notions of inferiority and injustice, and believe they can do something about it. "The educated have evil among them just as they have good among them," he said.
Fowler said the most pressing problem in Saudi Arabia, and one which could fuel terrorism if not addressed, is its overwhelming 3.8 percent birth rate. About half its population is age 18 or under, and many of those young people are faced with unemployment. The problem is exacerbated by the current low price of oil, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's income. Fowler noted that, despite the vast wealth of some of its citizens, average per capita income in Saudi Arabia is only $6,200--even lower than the $6,800 average in Mexico. "They must find work for the young people, because idleness leads to frustration and trouble," he said.
Despite the fact that Westerners see the pace of change as slow, Amb. Fowler asserted that Saudi Arabia is modernizing by encouraging foreign investment, rewriting its commercial codes, and trying to gain entry in the World Trade Organization. He also said some women are beginning to find work outside the home, starting in the fields of teaching and health care.
However, he cautioned against expectations of a wave of democracy across the Arab world similar to that which followed the breakup of the Soviet empire. "All of us Western democrats believe that the finest expressions of the human mind and spirit happen under democratic governance, but that's not the experience of most of the world," he said. "There's been tremendous progress toward democracy in places like Kuwait and Yemen, but it's counter to Arab history and tradition, and isn't going to happen overnight."
He deflected claims that Saudi officials have been anything less than fully cooperative in the fight against terror, and stated that Saudi Arabia is "uniquely pro-American." He said the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers, which killed Saudis as well as 19 Americans, was quite a wake-up call for the Saudis. "They never dreamed they had domestic terrorist cells. And not only were the terrorists Saudis, but they were Sunni Muslims, which is the overwhelming branch in the country."
He pointed out that Saudi Arabia stripped Osama bin Laden of his citizenship and exiled him more than a decade ago when he started calling for the overthrow of the regime. In addition, Amb. Fowler said the bin Laden family (Osama is one of 52 children) has been so cooperative in the ongoing investigation that the family's construction firm has received contracts to work on U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia.
He also urged Americans not to criticize Saudi Arabia as not vocal enough in its support of America. He said, "Let them do it quietly, because they have their own domestic problems. Why should they salute the American flag or issue press releases of support every day? That sort of demand shows insensitivity to their domestic problems."
Amb. Fowler said his time in Saudi Arabia was the "most fascinating period of my life." He split his time fairly evenly between military matters, commercial matters, and policy issues. He was constantly concerned with the 6,000 American troops there, and the air sorties to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq. He also facilitated business transactions between Saudis and the 50,000 US citizens doing business in Saudi Arabia, and had supervisory responsibilities over the 300 people assigned by the State Department to the US embassy there.
He said most Saudis are content with their government, which has provided citizens with free education, free health care, a modern infrastructure and road system, and shining cities.
He called the Saudis "very attractive people," and left with rich memories of their "incredible tradition of hospitality."
"I made friends for life there," he asserted.
He said their social system revolves around personal relationships and conversation. "They don't have TV or concert halls," he said. "Their idea of fun is talking, carrying on deep conversations. They are intelligent and quick, and I enjoyed spending many hours drinking tea in the desert with them late into the night. They want to tell you about their family, and want to hear about yours. They would tell me a story about their father raising camels, and I would tell one about my father raising cows."
He endeared himself to many Saudis by undertaking a 400-mile camel trek across the desert with two friends and three guides. What they anticipated would be a three-day adventure ended up taking eight. The only person they saw on the entire journey was one Bedouin man they encountered just as a rare winter storm approached. When rain and hail began to pelt them, the Bedouin insisted the Americans shelter themselves under his tent. "He slept outside in the hail storm while we begged him to come in," said Fowler. "But he refused to violate what he presumed to be his guests' sense of privacy."
Now that he has retired from the Foreign Service, Amb. Fowler said his future plans beyond his work with the Mideast Institute are uncertain. However, he joked that he's "doing everything possible to stay out of a law firm!"
He has consulting contracts with several multinational firms to advise them on business in the Middle East, and would like to eventually end up teaching at a college or university.
He also stressed that he's definitely not interested in further elective office, and noted that his dubious entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations probably precludes that possibility in any case.
That permanent notation of his verbal wit was recorded during the furor over the presidential nomination of Alan Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. Fowler was overseas on Congressional business when it was revealed that Ginsburg had smoked marijuana, and was forced to withdraw his nomination. That sent the press into a feeding frenzy, demanding to hear from elected officials about their own history with the illicit drug. Amb. Fowler recalled that when he flew back in to Atlanta he was greeted by a bevy of reporters who thrust microphones into his face and shouted, "Have you ever smoked marijuana?!"
Unaware of the Ginsburg controversy, Fowler assumed they were joking, and jokingly replied, "Only while committing adultery!"
"I don't think I'll ever get over that one!" he laughed.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.