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An open letter to Thomas Friedman

alaa-alghambdismall|By Dr Alaa Alghamdi|

Dear Mr. Friedman,

While I would like nothing better than to thank you for your concern for our youth and our country, as expressed in your Nov. 25 piece in the New York Times, I find I cannot in good conscience do so. You made certain observations during your stay in Riyadh, observations which no doubt may sound fresh and even enlightened to your readership. In truth, however, these observations are made with an authority you can scarcely claim, based upon your superficial knowledge of Saudi society. This renders many of your opinions at best, uninformed, and at worse, both patronizing and incendiary.

You inform the American public that Saudi Arabia, with its vast number of youth under 30, is in a unique position for development and transformation — and then, in the next breath, you express doubt regarding the opportunities for true transformation and the dearth of leadership for the youth. With some connotation of surprise, you note the huge number of Saudi youth who have studied or are studying abroad, the entry of women into various creative and professional sectors — and then, again, you express doubt as to whether these manifest changes are real or significant or enough.

The skeptic’s stance is, of course, popular for an intellectual. Hope itself may be viewed as naive, and the last thing a New York Times columnist and author could risk appearing as. To an extent, I understand that. However, through your skepticism, through your doubt, you are blinding yourself and your readers to more than half the story.

Saudi society is, indeed, in the midst of a sort of social revolution, a highly positive one — but it does not, perhaps, fit the narrow American definition of a revolution. It is peaceful and positive. The fact that we are becoming one of the best educated nations on earth, that our youth are educated globally, that social and gender barriers are being broken down daily and that we have many innovative and highly qualified minds looking beyond the predominance of the oil industry and into other markets — all of these facts somehow seem to have escaped you.

Of course, this is hardly surprising. Damning with faint praise the accomplishments of a Muslim society allows a writer such as yourself to appear enlightened while still functioning from within a framework of Islamophobia. The implicit suggestion that ISIS-based terrorism is linked to Saudi society is an ignorant one, in that it ignores a hundred years of history. In fact, Saudi Arabia has been the brunt of more terrorist attacks, and has done more to combat terrorism, than all the western countries combined.

Terrible events continue to take place in the world, such as the despicable attacks on Paris a couple of weeks ago. And, yes, over-reliance on the oil industry has environmental repercussions that affect the whole world. Over the next century, it is not a sustainable industry. But, Mr. Friedman, your assumption that Saudis are on the wrong side of these issues, or uninformed about them, is simply insulting. It is based on a superficial knowledge of our society.

My advice to you, then, would be to worry about industry, sustainability and social equality in your own country – surely there is enough to worry about there — and to give us the respect and trust one would give any ally. Or, failing that, to suspend any further visits to or commentary about our nation.