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Oil the king's men
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Cable news addicts have seen Nail Al-Jubeir before. The eloquent Saudi Arabian diplomat is a frequent spokesman on ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox News, behind a mic or on camera every month since September 11, 2001, to persuade Americans that his country is not full of religious zealots restrained by a repressive king with U.S. weaponry.

As part of his Saudi-financed barnstorming tour across the U.S., Al-Jubeir was in Savannah last week. His talk, “The U.S.-Saudi Relationship and the Challenges Ahead,” was arranged by the non-profit, Savannah Council on World Affairs, with sponsorship from the Georgia Ports Authority -- one of whose largest clients is the Saudi National Shipping Company.

Al-Jubeir said that throughout the Cold War, asserted that the Saudis “stood with the United States at a time when being an ally and a friend of the U.S. wasn’t fashionable in the Arab world.” However, the Saudi Government did not reveal their US-alliance, and so, “as a result of 9-11 people looked at the relationship as something new.”

Thus, he said, the relationship has begun to shift, as fewer Americans reside in Saudi Arabia and more Arabs leave the U.S. “When you lose the people to people contact in a relationship,” Al-Jubeir added, “that is a spiral that is going to be dangerous.”

He largely blamed TV for the upsurge of anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia, saying that “America’s largest export to the world is culture.”

But Al-Jubeir told the assembled that “We are going through major changes in our own culture right now.” He lamented the low turnout, purportedly 40 percent of voters, for the recent Saudi municipal elections, without acknowledging the widespread disrespect for these elections among the Saudi people.

In discussing the challenges of democracy, Al-Jubeir again leaned on the favorite crutch of contemporary political pundits: the media. He complained, “What we find is whether its American television or Arab television, they describe the world the way they see it, and in most cases the wrong way.”

Discussing the evolution toward democracy, he emphasized the issue of stability in the region and how that affects not only foreign and domestic investment, but also the role such funds play in developing an active work force. Although Saudi Arabia has one of the best teacher-student ratios in the world, according to the CIA fact book, unemployment hovers at 25 percent and the per capita GDP has fallen 2.1 percent since 1975, as foreign workers have become more prevalent.

To combat this, the Saudi government is selling parts of the various nationalized companies it runs on the newly created Saudi stock exchange to promote a healthy phase of privatization “to make sure people own stock in their own future” and to gain entrance into the WTO.

The family structure in Saudi Arabia was also a topic of concern, and when Al-Jubeir began to answer the written questions of the audience, he discussed the subordinate role of women in a male-dominated, conservative society. Though 50 percent of Saudi college graduates are female, only 7-10 percent of them enter the labor force. Some restrictions, he contended are cultural, not legal.

Oil was another topic of concern for the audience, and although Al-Jubeir claimed that “You’re looking at a Saudi that knows absolutely nothing about oil,” he went on to discuss various aspects that the country’s most precious resource.

Saudi Arabia’s “very conservative” estimate of oil reserves is a 100 year supply, and he insisted that the energy crisis is a global issue. While the Saudi King and government own the oil fields in the country, Al-Jubeir did admit that “downstream” production and refining operations were being privatized and turned over to Chinese, Italian and Spanish companies.

Finally, there was the issue of Iraq. Al-Jubeir claimed that the “best thing for the U.S. to do is to gradually withdraw,” and added that “our biggest fear is for the Americans to tomorrow declare victory and pull out.”

He discussed the difficulties of using a fighting force to reconstruct a nation. Without debating the various mistakes and miscalculations surrounding U.S. involvement in Iraq, Al-Jubeir did state that the U.S. military “knows how to defeat enemies -- destroy enemies -- but one thing it never got to learn... is nation-building.” w