Building Bridges: A Conversation with Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal

Published: June 2, 2005

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She is Vice Chairman of the Board and the General Supervisor of Effat College. She is the granddaughter of King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud), the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; daughter of the third King of Saudi Arabia, Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, and Queen Effat Al-Thinayaan, champion of women’s education; and sister of Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Saud Al-Faisal.

She is Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal, and for nine days in May she was a delegate with the Saudi Trade Mission that made its way across the United States to build bridges in the areas of trade and investment. Today we are pleased to bring you an interview with Princess Loulwa in which she discussed the importance of the US-Saudi relationship, including its history and its business and education components, as well as the economic, political and social reforms taking shape in Saudi Arabia.

Princess Loulwa was interviewed during the visit of the Saudi Trade Mission to Chicago on May 16, 2005.

SUSRIS: Thank you, your Royal Highness, for taking time to talk today. You are in Chicago as a member of the Saudi Trade Mission that is touring five cities in the United States. Can you tell us why this tour is important to US-Saudi relations?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: As you must have seen in the media, the visit of Prince Abdullah, our Crown Prince, with President Bush in Crawford, demonstrated the very strong relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The trade between our countries has quite a long history – more than half a century. At the moment the economy in the Kingdom is doing extremely well and Saudi Arabia decided to open up the new business prospects to investors — not just to Saudis, but international investors and, of course, American investors.

SUSRIS: From the level of participation here in Chicago it appears that American business people are interested in working with their Saudi counterparts.

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Well I hope so. We’ve had a good reception everywhere. It’s a very good market for trade and investment at the moment. We have over $600 billion in opportunities for investment in the next ten to fifteen years. So every indicator suggests a rosy future for investment in Saudi Arabia.

SUSRIS: You mentioned the summit in Crawford between Crown Prince Abdullah and President Bush. It was seen by some as a turning point in the relationship that was damaged by 9/11. What did you see as significant about the meeting?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Yes, for a long while relations were quite cool, but after this visit I think things have turned around. It was also important that the world has had reassurances from Saudi Arabia that our policy is to keep the oil flowing to meet demand. It’s just as bad for producers as it is for consumers of oil if the prices go up too much.

SUSRIS: Can we talk about the history of the US-Saudi relationship? You have a perspective that many would find of great interest. Please share with us your view of the history, the transformation and the progress that has been made?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: The relationship started at the time of King Abdulaziz because of the oil business. He welcomed the Americans because they were not among the colonizing powers in the world so he was open to negotiations with President Roosevelt at the time. They met in 1945 on a US ship in the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt and they hit it off very well. They became very good friends and they exchanged many letters — very interesting letters.

SUSRIS: Americans, especially those working to build the oil industry, had been welcomed in the Kingdom even before the first meeting of Saudi and US leaders. Can you comment on the people-to-people relationship?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Americans have always been welcome. We have had more contact with Americans than any other western country, because they’ve been there from the beginning. Saudi Arabia at the time had just become unified — it became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — and opened relations with the outside world. The Americans were there from the very beginning.

SUSRIS: How well do you think Americans and Saudis understand each other?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Well, in a way all previous understanding between the United States and Saudi Arabia seemed to have disappeared after 9/11. It’s as if we are renewing our friendship now although it was never cut off. Between the American public and the Saudi public I don’t think there was ever a problem. In certain areas we do have differences of opinion: on the Palestine question, the Iraq conflict. But each one is free to have his own opinion.

SUSRIS: Is the trade mission helpful in rebuilding the connections?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Yes. People are able to talk and to re-new connections — to “re-meet” let’s say. We weren’t really cut off — grown apart but we’re back where we were before.

SUSRIS: It’s always amazing how much people have to learn from each other through face to face connections. That leads to a question about the impressions Saudis and Americans get of each other through the media. Does it concern you that people may be misinformed?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Yes, it’s very hard watching sometimes. Even I have been very much disturbed when I have read something or heard something on the radio or TV that said things about Saudi Arabia that didn’t exist, that weren’t true. But we’ve heard some things about the United States that weren’t true either. So I think the best way to be informed is to go for oneself and get to know firsthand. Don’t rely only on the media to get the feel or knowledge of other peoples.

SUSRIS: One aspect of this trade mission is that there are Saudi businesswomen in the delegation. I have talked with several of them and they are very optimistic about the role of women in Saudi society.

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Women have always been represented, especially in business. I think all Saudis have business and trade in their blood, because this is how we survived. Before the unification of the country when we were tribes and nomads, trade was the only thing that kept us alive.

SUSRIS: What concerns you about the perception among Americans about the role of women in Saudi Arabia?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Well, if they were to listen only to the media they would think that the women in Saudi Arabia are completely suppressed, not educated, and don’t have any jobs. The reality is that while education started for men in 1960, it started for women just two years later in 1962. Actually, prior to the start of the Ministry of Education there already were schools for women, private schools, including Dar-Al-Hanan which my mother [Queen Effat] opened in 1955.

You should also know that at that point in our history we were a country of 5% literacy and at the moment we’re a country of 5% illiteracy. That shows how far we have come in just seventy years – even less if you consider that formal education started 50 years ago.

It’s not just Americans who are not familiar with these facts. We’re asked about the same things in other places too. I don’t know why. Now I’m not saying that we’re angels or perfect — there are some families that are stricter with women. However, education for women has never been taboo since it was accepted in 1962. From the moment the public schools opened for women they have never closed down.

SUSRIS: What would you like Americans to know about the progress women are making in Saudi society? For example, how do you answer those who are concerned that women didn’t vote in the recent municipal council elections?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Well, men voted for the first time, this time too. We’ve been reassured by the group that administered the voting, who arranged it, that the next time women will be in it. I don’t see any reason to disbelieve them.

One thing I would like to reassure everybody, please, is that neither the veil nor the driving have stopped women from going where they have to go and doing what they have to do. Really, the veil doesn’t stop you from anything nor does the driving. Women are working in Saudi Arabia. We’re helping each other and our fellow men as well.

In all areas more and more jobs are opening to women. Actually, women hold a great deal of the private wealth held in Saudi banks. It used to be that they were not using their bank accounts and are now using them in businesses. That is one of the reasons that our economy is so stable now and doing so well. It is because of the capital held by women. They’ve gone into business in a very strong way and there are no limits.

SUSRIS: Can you talk more about the reform programs in Saudi Arabia – social, political and economic?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Its all going hand in glove, but you cannot force anything. Sometimes we are asked to do things that are impossible. We’re doing things at our own pace, and our own way and it’s working very well. I don’t see a reason to push anything. Reform is happening in every sector, and soon, I don’t know, we might reach the moon.

SUSRIS: If you could tell Americans about one thing that they don’t understand very well about the people of Saudi Arabia. What would that be?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Some of the people I meet for the first time ask about driving for women, the joblessness rate. All these areas are being taken care of. As for anything else, you are American, what would you like to know about Saudi Arabia?

SUSRIS: Can you tell us about the modern society that Saudi Arabia has become?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Everything you have here, we have in Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia became one country it was unified — the tribes, the cities. Everything became one country at the time of King Abdulaziz. We entered the modern era as a new country that had nothing, except for income that came in with the pilgrims [for the Hajj].

Saudi Arabia moved into a multi million dollar economy in just a few years. We’ve jumped into the 21st century even before the dawn of the 21st century, because everything we had imported at the time was everything new for that period. What you hadn’t started using here yet we were already importing to Saudi Arabia.

So we jumped, leaped centuries in twenty, thirty years. Now were going into the second leap with all this reform that we’re doing. We’ll probably be in the 23rd century before anyone else.

SUSRIS: What would you tell Saudi Arabians who may not know Americans very well, those who may have inaccurate stereotypes of Americans?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: I think Saudi Arabians know Americans much better then Americans know the Saudis. We meet many more Americans in Saudi Arabia than the other way around. We see much of American life on TV in Saudi Arabia.

SUSRIS: Do you think Saudis receive an accurate portrayal of Americans from the media?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Lately most news about the United States is about what is happening in Iraq and in other areas. I think people visiting each other is the only way to become familiar with real people. Coming to Saudi Arabia is the only way really, just as we Saudis come to the States to visit. I think more Americans should come and visit us. They’re making things much easier now for visas.

SUSRIS: The statement released after the Crawford summit in April called for increased dialogue and interactions between Saudis and Americans. How can that be brought about?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Through investments, I think, and through jobs, and through the open market. You know we have the tourism sector that is growing at a very fast rate at the moment.

SUSRIS: Is the tourism industry trying to attract westerners as well?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Yes, as well as Middle Easterners and Easterners. Tourism is for everybody.

SUSRIS: Americans can visit Saudi Arabia for tourism?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: I think there are one or two companies that arrange tours. I’ve met some foreign tourists in Saudi Arabia. Most come for the scuba diving in the Red Sea. Tourism is a new business area for Saudi Arabia.

SUSRIS: Do you travel often?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: I travel everywhere, especially now with the women’s college. I’m the Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the women’s college, Effat College, that my mother opened. She opened the first girl’s school and the first women’s college in Saudi Arabia. We’re very proud of that.

SUSRIS: Can you talk about how that came to be?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: The government decided to allow the private sector to open higher education colleges and universities, and we got the first license for the first women’s college in Saudi Arabia. And we’re working now on becoming a university. The college was formed in 1999, before her death. It bears her name.

SUSRIS: Is it true that there are more women than men enrolled in higher education in Saudi Arabia?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: Yes. It has been since the opening of schools in the early 1960’s. Women have higher grades and the percentage of women in education is higher than men.

SUSRIS: Do you see a return to the education relationship with the United States that existed before 9/11?

Princess Loulwa al-Faisal: That will depend on the government of the United States and the availability of visas for students. You know there is a strict law about the age group for males coming into the United States. That age group fits the student group. So we are waiting. We have heard from the United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia that they’re trying to make it easier to get visas. In Saudi Arabia we’re looking into exchange programs. Maybe some American students can come and study in Saudi Arabia.

SUSRIS: We all hope those bridges will be built. Thank you so much for your time.


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HRH Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal Bin Abdulaziz

Her Royal Highness (HRH) Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal is a member of the Saudi Arabian Royal family and is involved, experienced, and dedicated to promoting women’s education and social and family welfare.

Since 1994, HRH has been the President and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Al-Maharat Cognitive and Skill Development Center, Jeddah, and the Vice Chair and General Supervisor of Dar-Al-Hanan School and Effat College Board of Trustees since 1999.

From 1990 to 1999, HRH was the Assistant to Queen Effat in supervising Dar Al-Hanan School, First Private High School for Girls in the Kingdom, Jeddah. From 1997 to 1999, HRH was the Assistant to Queen Effat and Head of the Planning Committee for Effat College Project. In 1991, HRH was the Head of the Higher Women Committee for support of Kuwaiti families during the Gulf War.

Over the past three years, HRH has given various presentations on Saudi Arabia including one at a recent event in Paris. She was the keynote speaker at the London Middle East Institute Conference held at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where she spoke on redefining roles for women in the GCC, and at the Jeddah Economic Forum in 2003. She participated in the ninth annual model school conferences organized by the International Center for Leadership in Education, Washington, DC.

HRH is a Board member in King Faisal Foundation, Riyadh. Since 1970, HRH has been a member in Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, Riyadh.