A Strong Relationship is the Only Path Interview with Usamah Al-Kurdi Part 1

Published: December 9, 2004

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Editor’s Note:

We have been pleased from time to time to feature presentations by Engineer Usamah al-Kurdi made to various conferences and panels. He is a member of the Saudi Arabian Majlis Ash-Shura, the Consultative Council and a leader in Saudi-US business relations.

The Council, established in 1993, advises the government and the King on a broad spectrum of issues. It consisted of 60 members initially but membership was increased to 120 members in 2001. Its charter includes expressing its opinion on the general policies of the State such as: general plans for economic and social development; the review and interpretation of laws; the review of international treaties and agreements and concessions; and the review of annual reports provided by the government.

In September he participated in the National Council on US-Arab Relations’ conference for policymakers in Washington and a forum on reform sponsored by the Middle East Institute and Foreign Policy magazine. As he was preparing for the latter event he took time to talk with us on the issues of US-Saudi relations and reforms in the kingdom.

Engineer al-Kurdi’s interview with SUSRIS is provided in two parts. Today we feature his comments on the relationship. Next week we will conclude with his interview on the progress of reforms in Saudi Arabia.

A Strong Relationship is the Only Path
Interview with Usamah Al-Kurdi
Part 1

Washington, DC
September 16, 2004

SUSRIS: We’re talking today with Usamah Al-Kurdi. We thank you for taking time to share your views with our readers. Can we start with your general appraisal of the current state of the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

Usamah Al-Kurdi

Usamah Al-Kurdi: The relations between Saudi Arabia and United States over the many decades have served the interests of the United States and the interests of Saudi Arabia as well as the interests of the Middle East in general. The two countries cooperated in critical areas — on political issues, energy market stability and many other areas — that needed to be addressed in the Middle East and the world.

There is no doubt that the relationship is going through some phase of re definition and needs to be evaluated even further, especially in light of the events in the past few years after the 11th of September. What this phase needs I think is an understanding from both sides as to the importance of this relationship again in regards to the interests of the world and the interests of the Middle East in particular. But also, we need to keep in mind that the two countries do not have an alternative but to have an excellent relationship. Whatever voices on the two sides that try and say otherwise — we need to recognize that these people do not address the interests of both countries and are not acting on the facts.

SUSRIS: The 9/11 attacks and the events that followed have all resulted in an intensive examination of the relationship, and a backlash that continues through today. Did 9/11 permanently damage the relationship?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: Well, I see the damage that occurred as a result of the 11th of September, but it is not permanent. There is no alternative for both countries to continuing this important relationship on a solid footing. It is in the interests of the world. The events of the 11th of September, in my view, did require that this relationship be examined to make sure it actually serves the interests of the two countries.

Part of the damage to the relationship has come from erroneous and misleading claims. I would especially note the results of more than one committee in the United States and elsewhere regarding Saudi Arabia’s link to terrorism and terrorism financing. The independent commission of 9/11 and the Congress commission on the same subject and the OECD committee on financial dealings have all confirmed that Saudi Arabia was not connected to supporting the terrorists that committed the 11th of September or any other terrorist acts. Despite these findings people continue to be mislead otherwise. That worsens the damage.

SUSRIS: There continue to be critics in the United States who feel that Saudi Arabia is not doing enough in the war on terror. How do Saudis react to the continued criticism?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: Well, it actually makes many Saudis, such as myself, worry about the agenda of these people who want to see bad relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. We still see accusations linking of Saudi Arabia to terrorism, despite tangible conclusions of the committees I mentioned, despite repeated statements from President Bush and members of his Administration, that Saudi Arabia is a solid partner in the war on terrorism.

What I have noticed is that the negative reviews typically come through media coverage of Saudi Arabia. But, I believe the Congress and the government of the United States understand the true facts of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a safe world and its condemnation of all terrorist acts.

SUSRIS: You travel often to the United States, and you meet many Americans. What do you think is the area of greatest misunderstanding by Americans of the relationship, and of Saudi Arabia?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: I have noticed that events in Saudi Arabia, like the latest reform steps are not recognized and sufficiently understood in the United States. I blame ourselves for that.

We need to be more transparent and more forthcoming with these changes to let the American people, the American government and the Congress know about these reforms that are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Having a better understanding of what Saudi Arabia is really all about is important to the relationship.

SUSRIS: Since 9/11 travel between the US and Saudi Arabia has become more difficult. Americans are told by the State Department that Saudi Arabia is not a safe place to go, and Saudis are having difficulty getting visas to come to the United States. How has that impacted the relationship and the understanding on both sides?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: Well, on my side, I appreciate the traumatic events that took place in the United States on the 11th of September. I appreciate the need of the Americans to take some of the steps they have taken. I remember when the first terrorist attack took place in Saudi Arabia years ago and how I felt about the loss of life and the fact that terrorists succeeded in exploding bombs in my country, committing terrorist acts.

So, I appreciate the American response to the 11th of September. This is one of the reasons why I said earlier that I don’t think there will be a permanent impact. Eventually, there will be more understanding as to what has happened in the United States and more recognition of the relationship.

The single, most important issue that I think might have a long-term impact on our relations is the issue of visas for students. I have heard comforting words from American officials as to the fact that they don’t see this continuing for a long time. One of the most important reasons why Saudi Arabia and the United States had a good understanding over the past few decades was the fact that we had quite a few students going to universities in the United States. If that interruption continues, and I doubt it would, then we will have problems. But again, I believe that these restrictions will not continue for a long time, and I think we will get back to normal on that issue pretty soon.

SUSRIS: The military-to-military ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia have always been an important component of the bilateral relationship. Can you comment on the current military-to-military relationship, and how Saudis view the U.S. military forces in the region?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: The fact is that the level of the military presence of the United States in Saudi Arabia has always been minimal, restricted to training and need for maintenance and operations of some of the equipment and facilities built by the Americans or brought by Saudi Arabia.

When one talks about the American presence in Saudi Arabia, it’s not like we have 100,000 soldiers on Saudi soil. The presence has always been, as I said, in terms of maintenance and training.

The reason that is so is because we have placed a lot of emphasis on training and educating our own staff and military personnel, which meant that we can depend more on ourselves. So, the increase or decrease of a minimal presence doesn’t really pose any major difference or change in the relationship.

Operation Southern Watch [deployment to Prince Sultan Air Base] was a decision by the United Nations, and Saudi Arabia obliged. Officials in both countries are satisfied with the level of cooperation. Then we have other individuals and institutions who thrive on being skeptical about the cooperation between the two countries. I am of the opinion that maybe they should be looking at what we are actually doing together.

SUSRIS: What concerns do people have in Saudi Arabia about the current U.S. military deployments in the region, in Iraq, and the potential for conflict with Iran, and other areas that remain unstable?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: Like all nations around the world, not only nations in the Middle East, there is concern about the military movements of the United States — the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan and the military position that they see the United States taking.

Traveling around the world in the last few months, it was easy for me to realize that the United States is losing a lot of friends, again, not only in the Middle East but also around the world. In my view, the United States needs to pay more attention to something like that.

SUSRIS: How do Saudi Arabians react to negative comments made about the Kingdom in connection with our presidential campaign season?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: In my view, this is campaign rhetoric. I actually expected something like this to happen. I’m not surprised by the fact that it is happening.

I think the dust will settle. The true nature of the need for these two countries to cooperate will emerge. Of course, Saudis follow the election campaigns in the States, and there is quite a bit of coverage in the Saudi media. But, there is also a high level of understanding of what is going on in the United States. When Senator Kerry refers to dependence on Saudi oil, the response is, “What alternative does he have?”

The reason the United States needs to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil is that there are problems that, to a large extent, may be resolved by the United States. If the United States resolves the issue of Iraq and the Israeli issue, then there will be no problems for the United States as far as dependence on Middle Eastern oil, especially when one knows that not Russia, not Western Africa, not Central Asia, not the North Sea are going to provide sufficient resources for not only the United States but also for the world as far as oil is concerned.

This is one of the most important reasons why I say that the two countries have no alternative but to have good relations and cooperate well.

SUSRIS: You mentioned Israel as well as Iraq. How do Saudi Arabians currently view the relationship between the United States and Israel and its relationship to the Arab world?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: There is no doubt in the mind of Saudis that Israel enjoys the unlimited support of the United States. All Saudis feel that this is a true statement and that the United States needs to play a more balanced role in the Middle East if it wants to resolve this issue. But, again, resolving this issue, in my opinion, is dependent on the political environment here in Washington. Of course, as far as Iraq is concerned, there are a lot of ill feelings about the fact that the United States had to invade Iraq, which is the same way many Americans are thinking.

SUSRIS: Shifting gears a little bit — business-to-business relationships between the United States and Saudi Arabia — given your background as a businessman, you have special insight as to how the trends have gone up and down in the relationship and the business connections between our two countries. How would you describe the atmosphere for business relationships between our countries?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: Well, it hasn’t been doing too good in the past three years since the 11th of September, again as a result of, particularly, the visa situation.

The overall general environment between the two countries — I don’t think again, as I said earlier, that this will continue or be a permanent fact — has been affected by the developments between the two countries and actually the development in the world in general.

For example, we have seen the trade between Saudi Arabia and the United States go up in 2003 less than the level of growth of trade between Saudi Arabia and Europe, Saudi Arabia and China, and Saudi Arabia and Japan. Despite the overall growth in Saudi trade, the growth of the trade between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been less than the growth with other countries, but not by big numbers. Maybe, it has been affected by the fact that in earlier years, there were huge contracts that needed to be fulfilled. I do not think this is a trend that will continue.

SUSRIS: With the current revenues and a budget surplus resulting from the high price of crude oil, do you see that the business environment will improve for American business people looking for opportunities in Saudi Arabia?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: I think I would leave that to the American business people to recognize the opportunity. In that regard, let me tell you that a [in September 2004], the government has announced that they will use about 60 percent of the budget surplus to pay the public debt, which is by the way all domestic debt.

About 40 percent is going to be used for development projects in the education, health, roads, the building of schools and universities, and also in the area of housing. We have a large sum of money for this purpose, something like $3 billion will be going to the issue of housing. There will be money going to stimulate job creation. About $1 billion is being allocated for the use by the Credit Bank. The Credit Bank basically, in its new law recently approved by the Consultative Council, would address the issue of small and medium-side enterprises and so hopefully will create many jobs in the next few years.

SUSRIS: Finally, talking about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, what do you see as ways that the relationship can be strengthened by both sides?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: I think we should extend the scope of the contact between the two countries, definitely but not limited to governments, but also civil societies, to educational institutions, academic institutions, Congress and the Consultative Council, and the public in general.

The contacts between the two countries, I think, should be expanded to include all different walks of life so that we can create more understanding of the United States in Saudi Arabia and of Saudi Arabia in the United States.

The other area I believe can be strengthened is more attention to the issue of business. I would like to see more American businessmen visiting Saudi Arabia and more Saudi businessmen visiting the United States to try and come up with more business dealings.

In the light of the fact that economic growth in Saudi Arabia last year was 6.4 percent and is expected to be between seven and eight percent in 2004; in light of the fact that there has been a dramatic increase in the funds available for investment in Saudi Arabia because of the increased oil sales; in light of the fact that the government of Saudi Arabia opened up many different new areas of investments for Saudi and foreign investors; I say that this is perfect timing for the business communities in these two countries to recognize the opportunities posed in Saudi Arabia and to benefit from them.

SUSRIS: Are there any ways that the people-to-people ties can be improved? Are there steps underway on either side that you see that are showing positive results?

Usamah Al-Kurdi: I haven’t seen any steps actually taken place. If we resolve the visa issue as soon as possible, I’m talking about tourist visas and others in this case, I think that will be a major step forward.

SUSRIS: Thank you Usamah Al-Kurdi for speaking with us today. You’ve given us a lot to think about regarding the nature and the current situation in U.S.-Saudi relations.

Usamah Al-Kurdi: You’re welcome.

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About Usamah Al-Kurdi

A member of Saudi Arabia’s Consultative (Shura) Council, an important force for change in the Kingdom, Usamah Al-Kurdi served as Secretary General of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce from 1997 – 2001. He is a Member of the Board of Saudi Arabian Airlines and was Vice President of the Saudi Consulting House, a forerunner of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA). Mr. Al-Kurdi also served on the boards of Saudi Arabia’s National Industrialization Company and the Royal Commission on Jubail and Yanbu (industrial cities).

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