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‘I Could Live in Kingdom Easily’
Raid Qusti, Arab News
RIYADH, 13 January 2007 — The head of a Boston-based cultural exchange program said here on Thursday that the idea to bring US university students to the Kingdom is to give them the opportunity to experience the difference between how the Kingdom is portrayed in the US media and the reality on the ground.
“It’s clear to me that our media was certainly distorted,” said J. Gregory Payne, director general of the Saudi-American Exchange, a public diplomacy organization founded in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I often tell people that if I had to move from the US, I could live in Saudi Arabia easily.”
Over 40 college students are in the Kingdom on a cultural tour sponsored by the US oil giant Chevron. The tour took the group to the Eastern Province and then to the capital where they met with Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman and Prince Sultan ibn Salman, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism.
Payne said that as part of the exchange program, other students have visited the Kingdom from Yale and Harvard, in addition to students from small schools in Illinois and other states. The organization’s goal is to bring groups to interact with all segments of Saudi society and to provide American college students the chance to get a real snapshot of the cultural landscape.
“We don’t just meet with the royals,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is to give people a real understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly of any society like we have in the US. Our whole goal is further understanding through communication. We are not political. We are not religious. We know that we have similarities and differences.”
Last year, the Saudi-American Exchange helped to bring Sonia Puopolo, whose mother was on the plane commandeered by Mohammed Atta on Sept. 11 and diverted into the World Trade Center, on her second of two goodwill trips to the Kingdom.
On Thursday, Payne told Arab News that people-to-people communication was important for melting misconceptions, noting that he was sure many of these American students would return home with a different view of Saudi Arabia after visiting the country.
He also said that prior to the group’s visit to the Kingdom, many questions loomed in the minds of the students, such as the ubiquitous concern over the ban on women driving in the Kingdom.
“I think they are now getting to understand the complex nature of Saudi society,” he said. “It’s hard for a lot of Americans to understand this. I say this because 70 percent of Americans do not have passports.”
Payne said that the students got to meet with Western-educated Saudi women. “Women here are content with their situation and do not want to change,” he said.
Payne said that another group of American students were expected to visit the Kingdom in March.<br><br>Post edited by: islaam.ca admin, at: 2007/01/19 23:38