Washington and Riyadh (1982-84)
I met him at a reception. I told him that I was about to take my first trip to the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Oman, and Yemen. He asked me why I wasn’t visiting his country, Saudi Arabia.
I explained that although I am not Jewish, my last name is and therefore I didn’t think the Saudis would let me in. He said that this was nonsense. He told me I could be allowed in even if I was Jewish. He also said that he would not only get me a visa for the Kingdom, but would arrange for me to meet with several ministers. He could do this, he said, because he himself was a minister’s son.
He was as good as his word: I did indeed go to the Kingdom, although it took my friend eighteen months to arrange the visit. In the meantime, I got to know this young Saudi. Like all other Arabs I have known, he opposed Israeli occupation of Arab territories. But unlike most others, he was interested both in Judaism and in Israel. After I knew him awhile, he admitted that he was actually taking private lessons in Hebrew.
He was also writing a Ph.D. dissertation. In his program, he had to have two professors approve of his thesis. He had chosen a prominent Arab scholar as his primary reader, but had also selected a well-known Israeli scholar as the second member of his committee. This was the first time I had ever heard of a Saudi seeking out a Jew to work with on a dissertation, and I was impressed at my friend’s broadmindedness.
Shortly before I left for the Kingdom, I noticed that my friend’s Israeli professor had published a blistering op-ed piece in the New York Times declaring that Saudi Arabia was not a reliable ally for America. I was even more impressed that my friend had chosen to work with someone with whom he obviously had something of an adversarial relationship.
The visit my friend had arranged was nothing short of spectacular. I met the foreign minister, the development minister, the chief of intelligence, and several other senior officials. The last person I met before leaving the Kingdom was my friend’s father.
When I entered his office, there was only one piece of paper on the minister’s desk: a copy of the anti-Saudi op-ed piece by his son’s Israeli professor. Upon seeing this, I immediately told the minister how much I respected his son for having this man on his dissertation committee. Many Saudi graduate students had the reputation for picking universities and professors who would not demand very much of them. His son was quite obviously an exception.
The minister’s smile changed into a frown. “Do you mean to tell me that this man is my son’s professor?” he asked, pointing at the article. I suddenly realized that I had let the cat out of the bag.
“How could my son do this?” he cried. “This man has no respect whatsoever for our country.
“If you are really my son’s friend,” he continued, “you will tell him that he will not have much of a career in the Kingdom if he has this man on his committee.”
“But he also has a distinguished Arab scholar as the chair of his committee,” I pointed out.
“That doesn’t matter,” the father insisted. “You tell him what I said.”
I felt miserable. My friend had worked hard to get me into the Kingdom as well as arrange my meetings with various high level officials. And in return I got him in trouble with his father. But I had no way of knowing that he hadn’t told his father about which professors he was working with.
Shortly after returning to Washington, I called my friend to thank him for all his hard work. He was in a happy mood, but I soon changed that. “Have you spoken to your father recently?” I asked.
“No,” he responded warily. “Why?”
“I think you had better talk to him.”
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“I think you should give him a call.”
“I’ll call him immediately,” said my friend.
An hour later, my friend called me back. The first thing he said was, “Why did you tell him?” He was not happy.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but I thought he already knew.”
“Well, he does now. I’ve only just finished talking with him. He yelled at me the entire time.”
“So what was the outcome?” I asked.
“We reached our usual compromise: I gave in completely.”
My friend never did write his dissertation. But he did become an important official in Saudi Arabia. He has not, however, offered to arrange another visit to the Kingdom for me.
Edited version published as “My Saudi Friend’s Israeli Prof., Unfortunately,” Washington Jewish Week, December 19, 1996.