Interview with James B. Smith, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia James b SmithJames B. Smith was sworn in on September 16, 2009, as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Prior to his appointment, Smith had served in a variety of executive positions with Raytheon Company involving corporate strategic planning, aircraft manufacturing, and international business development. During his prior 28-year career in the United States Air Force, Smith logged over 4,000 hours of flight time in F-15s and T-38s as a fighter pilot. He flew combat missions from Dhahran AB during Operation Desert Storm and commanded the 94th Fighter Squadron, the 325th Operations Group and the 18th Fighter Wing (Kadena AB, Okinawa). During his final assignment at U.S. Joint Forces Command, Smith also led Millennium Challenge, the largest transformation experiment in history. He was promoted to Brigadier General in October 1998, and retired from the Air Force on October 1, 2002. Smith is a distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Indiana University, the Naval War College, the Air Command and Staff College and the National War College.

The Politic: Unlike the majority of United States Ambassadors, you are a political appointee. Could you share why you chose to accept President Obama’s appointment back in 2009?

This is not a hard question to answer; when the President calls you and asks you to do something, generally the answer is going to be yes. In my case, I had spent my first career in the military, so I had 32 years of service. When the opportunity to serve your country comes up, the default is yes, and you work out the details later. In my case, the opportunity to serve again has proven so fulfilling that there was never a second-guessing of that decision.

The Politic: On a related note, you had a very long and distinguished career in the United States Air Force, and served for an extended period of time as an executive with Raytheon Company. Could you talk about how those experiences prepared you for your current position as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia?

This is an intriguing job in that it requires all of the skills and insights that — in my case — you gain over 60 years. You do not get a checklist as to how to respond or how to think through things. So much of what we do involves understanding the culture that we are living in and using the instincts associated with dealing with day-to-day issues. The biggest instinct was from my experience from growing up on a farm. My grandmother used to tell me to always do what is right. That instinct is the first thing that I think about when I get up in the morning and look in the mirror.

Certainly, my time in the military was helpful in learning discipline and learning how to run large organizations. It proved beneficial in a way that I did not appreciate at the time. As a matter of fact, there has never been an Ambassador here with previous military experience, especially for a career. I didn’t know how that was going to fit in. It proved very beneficial during the Arab Spring because there was some question about our relationship and our commitment. During those conversations, I was able to share with my colleagues and the Saudis the notion that twenty years ago when Saudi Arabia was challenged from the north, I was here flying F-15s. I am here today, and we will be here tomorrow. That long-term commitment has held us in good stead over the last two and a half years with all of the uncertainty around us.

My business career has been exceedingly helpful because the primary focus of our engagement strategy over these last four years has focused on business, trade, education and medicine. Every relationship that we have through those is a brick in the foundation of a bilateral relationship. My experience in business and my affection for it has led to some great success in expanding our trade and in the process developing the kinds of relationships that sustain us through hard times. It would be very difficult for me to pick one of those life experiences and say that it was most important because it is the aggregate that in my case has proven so important.

The Politic: You discussed the importance of understanding the cultural and political climate in which you are working. What kind of steps have you taken to understand Saudi culture? And do you believe it is more difficult in Saudi Arabia to carry out this part of the job in comparison to other work environments that you have been placed in?

You have to be willing to dedicate a lot of time to understand the culture. This is a culture of relationships. The Saudis are among the warmest, most generous, and hospitable people you are ever going to meet. Everything here is based on trust and respect. You have to take the time to build that trust and respect. When you do that you are able to get an amazing amount done. Most of it is done in private; it is just a matter of commitment.

My wife and I have spent a lot of time traveling around the country. We have been to all thirteen provinces. Over time, what we find is that people recognize your commitment to the country, to the bilateral relationship, and to expanding business and education opportunities. Because of that, you are embraced as someone who is trying to appreciate their interests.

The Politic: Has there been anything here that has been particularly unexpected or surprising during your job as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia?

We were moving happily along, and then in December of 2010, the floodgates opened. The unexpected part was the Arab Spring over the last two and a half years and the challenges that it has presented. To a very large degree, Saudi Arabia has been in the eye of the storm. It has been the oasis of stability with uncertainty around it. That was a surprise.

One surprise has been the impact of the ubiquitousness of information. We all talk about social media, but the impact when you have an entire generation — particularly young people — that has access to local information in ways that they never have had in the past. The impact that has on a generation that is sharing ideas on a constant basis in a way that they have never done before is tremendous.

The Politic: The final question that I have with regards to a career in the Foreign Service is for the aspiring Foreign Service Officer. Do you have any advice for those pursuing a career in the Foreign Service?

Absolutely. Again, I am an untrained diplomat, so I am speaking as someone that came into the culture later. What I tell people is that for my first career of 32 years, I lived among heroes that were willing to go into harm’s way on a moments notice. Now, in my third career, I live among heroes that live in harm’s way without a second thought. It is a magnificent group of people who are out here representing our country and doing a magnificent job sometimes under very challenging circumstances. It is, without question, a noble profession, and I would certainly recommend it to someone who likes people, likes international travel, has an open mind, and wants to serve his or her country.

The Politic: Transitioning from a career in the Foreign Service to questions related to your work in Saudi Arabia, it comes as no surprise that the U.S.-Saudi partnership is one of the most essential partnerships between the West and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has the Arab world’s strongest economy, it is the second largest Arab country, and it also has the world’s largest oil reserves. While I want to delve with more specificity into each part of this partnership over the course of this interview, my question for you now is could you discuss in broad strokes the nature and the importance of this relationship?

It is hugely important. It goes back to February 14, 1945 with the meeting on board the U.S.S. Quincy up on the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal with a meeting between King Abdul Aziz and our President [Franklin] Roosevelt. I talk about the importance of relationships, and the fact that the two of them immediately hit it off and had great respect for each other is an example to all of this. Nonetheless, the relationship essentially was born of the end of World War II. However, [the initial relationship] acknowledged the challenges that were going to be facing both of our countries moving forward in what was going to become the Cold War. It was a relationship that was defined as energy for security. Our part of that relationship was on the security side, and Saudi Arabia’s part of that relationship was the acceleration of their ability to pump and deliver oil to the West.

Ambassador James Smith and Press Attaché Mofid Deak interact with Saudi youth at the 2010 Children’s Fair in Riyadh
Ambassador Smith interacts with Saudi youth at the 2010 Children’s Fair in Riyadh

That relationship has become infinitely more complex over these last thirty to forty years, but certainly no less important. Today, the relationship is founded on a handful of objectives that start with stability in the region and the access to resources. It is not just oil; the United States is the only country in the world that can guarantee freedom of navigation in international waters. That has been a commitment by our Navy since the day it was formed in the 1790s. If you allow the Straits of Hormuz to be closed, for example, you have established an international precedent that the Straits of Malacca or any other international waterway can also be interrupted. The commitment to the free flow of resources is more than just oil. It is about sovereignty and freedom of access for international navigation worldwide.

In terms of oil, that too is important, but not because of the United States’ need for oil. We only import about 7 percent of our oil from Saudi Arabia; however, our other allies in Europe and in Asia import a significantly higher amount. Again, it is part of our global commitment to freedom of access.

Stability in the region is hugely important. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia have global responsibilities. I think most people understand ours. As the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — the Keeper of the Two Holy Places — Saudi Arabia has a global responsibility in Islam, which it is very much committed to. When you look at the broad range of global responsibilities that we have, you see that the Saudis have accepted a global responsibility in the support of Muslims worldwide. In many ways, we are able to carry on a conversation that is more about global responsibilities than just our two national responsibilities.

The one thing that I have found, even though the cultures are dramatically different, is that we share a lot of common interests. Saudi Arabia is looking to modernize, and in that modernization process, we have been partners in education. There are more than 71,000 Saudi students studying in the United States today. They need to expand their economy and diversify it. Consequently, there is a huge need to establish a technology transfer and training in education and business, which has resulted in essentially a doubling of our exports to Saudi Arabia over these last four years (as well as joint ventures that allow them to diversify their economy). The bilateral relationship is hugely important and it allows us to have conversations about all of these things that are going on around us, to reach a consensus of an appropriate response, and to focus on long-term stability in the region.

The Politic: You mentioned the similarities and differences between American and Saudi culture. Do you believe that there are any misconceptions that the average citizen of Saudi Arabia has towards or America or vice-versa?

Absolutely. In the United States, we have lived for the last decade essentially with politics of fear. Most people, when you say Saudi Arabia, will think of a threat or of the movie The Kingdom, and that is their image. Another problem, of course, is that Saudi Arabia does not allow tourist visas. Unless you are a businessperson, a diplomat or somebody coming here with a reason, such as for a religious pilgrimage — which means that you have a sponsor letter or coming for Hajj or Umra — you cannot come to Saudi Arabia. So Saudi Arabia remains a mystery to a lot of Americans and therefore it is prone to the overgeneralizations that tend to happen. Case in point is the Boston bombing where one Saudi student was injured; the immediate press releases said that he must have been the [bomber]. What was never reported in the newspapers was that there are 93 Saudi doctors that are doing post-doc and fellowships in the Boston area. There was a Saudi doctor at every one of the hospitals that the injured were taken to. They essentially formed part of the core of the medical establishment there. That side of the story does not get told, so there are tremendous misperceptions.

However, the misperceptions are here too. When Secretary Hillary Clinton was here in 2010, she gave a speech at Dar Al-Hikma College, which is a magnificent women’s college in Jeddah. She was asked this question, and she chuckled. She said that most Saudis think that all American men are wrestlers and all American women are walking around in a bikini all day. It is just not true. But misperceptions do persist.

The Politic: The first facet of the U.S.-Saudi partnership that I would like to touch upon is the military component. In 2010, the U.S. State Department arranged the largest arms sale in American history, which was estimated at $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Could you discuss the nature of the U.S.-Saudi military partnership particularly how it plays into the role of Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region?

The Saudi military is a defensive military designed specifically for the defense of the Kingdom. They have never had a military operation outside of the Kingdom, except for the incursion into Yemen some decades ago due to Yemen’s attempt to claim what was Southern Saudi Arabia in Najran — the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali). Saudi Arabia has never expressed any desire to expand its borders. They are not an expansionist country or culture. The military is designed for the defense of the borders.

We have a very strong relationship, and it doesn’t just involve the acquisition of equipment, but also the training and maintenance of that equipment after it is purchased. The F-15 buy that you are referring to is a logical recapitalization of an F-15 fleet that was bought back in the 1980s. So the current F-15s are approaching the end of their life expectancy and this purchase is a recapitalization of that. It does not suggest a change in the direction of their military, and again, I have always seen this as a source of stability rather than a source of instability. The timing can be considered in terms of their concern with the threat from the East and their ability to deter and defend against that threat.

The Politic: The Saudi government has just approved a $5 billion aid package to Egypt, which has also been complemented by similar packages of $3 billion from the UAE and $4 billion from Kuwait. Could you discuss to where the stimulus is going and for what purposes it is being used?

That is a question you would have to ask in Cairo.

The Politic: Is this a topic that is discussed between the Saudi government and the U.S. Embassy or is it primarily a Saudi-driven action?

It is a Saudi-driven action. More than anything else, the Saudis want stability. They do not object to the notion of democracy, but in strategic terms, Saudi Arabia has always looked to Egypt as a bulwark to the West, just as Egypt has always looked to Saudi Arabia as a bulwark to the East. They have always seen each other as a source of stability for the other. In many ways, they have great respect for each other’s culture and role in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and Egypt is the largest Arab country, as well the home to Al Azhar in Cairo — which essentially serves as an anchor for the intellectual side of Islam. They need each other for stability. I think the Saudis saw what was happening as a reset, and a way for Egypt to stabilize its economy and move forward with some modernization economically. They and others in the region wanted to ante in very quickly to show their support for the transition to do that.

The Politic: I was curious how the United States government views the development in relations between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain especially in the wake of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] intervention in Bahrain?

Bahrain is a lot more complicated than most people give it credit. I am not sure I can answer that in a short interview. Keep in mind that the legal underpinnings of the Peninsula Shield, which was the movement of GCC forces into Bahrain, was based on their concern with an outside player. There are no legal underpinnings in the GCC agreement that allows for the deployment for a domestic disturbance, so this was all about their concern for Iranian influence in Bahrain. You have to go back to March of 2011 to really appreciate the thinking because people here really did not know what was going on. It felt like chaos. They were looking at Tunisia. They were looking at Egypt. We were still trying to close on a transition in Yemen. Things in Syria were already deteriorating, although they had not reached the level of violence that we started to see later.

Now, all of sudden, here it comes in the East. The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran is much more complicated than a simple Sunni-Shia divide. It is a difference in agreement over governance. Saudi Arabia was not about to allow Iran to get a foothold in Bahrain and add Bahrain as an Iranian province, which is what they said they were going to do. The move of the Peninsula Shield was to provide stability to a situation that the Saudis did not want to get out of control. As it turns out, those forces, I don’t think, ever made contact with any of the demonstrators there. They were sent with the specific objective of protecting the airport and government facilities. After things calmed, most of them withdrew. There are a handful — a company or less — that rotate out on a very regular basis, but again, this is a signal from the GCC that they are not going to allow an outside power come in and destabilize the region.

The Politic: As a follow-up to that, have there been any talks of warming Saudi-Iranian relations, particularly following the recent presidential election in Iran?

It is too early to tell. Both of the countries have sent overtures over the last four years, but the Saudis have insisted on preconditions. They have insisted that Iran turn over the Saudis terrorists that are being held in Iran and that Iran desist on all of their activities to destabilize the region. You can get a long dissertation from the Iranian presence in Bahrain, the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and their support for the Muslim Brotherhood… The new president [of Iran] is an individual who was in government at a time when relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were much warmer than they are now. It is not out of the realm of possibility that, in time, the relationship could change. I would argue that it would happen slowly, it would happen incrementally, and it would happen only if Iran changes its behavior in the region.

The Politic: I was hoping to segue to a topic that you touched upon earlier: namely, Saudi Arabia’s possession of the world’s largest oil reserves. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal recently said that the U.S. energy boom in shale oil and gas could seriously impact the Kingdom’s economy. Given the changing Saudi oil status quo, what do you foresee in terms of the long-term sustainability of the Saudi economy? What efforts towards economic diversification have the Saudi government undertaken?

I am not a soothsayer, so I am not going to predict the future. I will tell you that there will be changes in the global energy market over time. There are a lot of factors that will drive that. One is shale gas and oil. The second is conservation efforts that are taking place. You have seen in the United States that our consumption has actually leveled off and started to decline by a percent or a percent and a half over the last three years. As the rest of the world adopts conservation efforts — which are going on here in Saudi Arabia, by the way — that will have an impact on global demand.

Another factor to consider is renewables and that whole panoply of renewable technology that is out there. People are using this [technology], but it has not yet become a center of mass in the global energy market. ARAMCO [Saudi Arabian Oil Company] would tell you that by 2035, only about 15 percent of the global energy will be renewable, but if you were to have a significant technological breakthrough, perhaps in battery storage, which makes solar more competitive, or in small modular reactors, which makes nuclear affordable, safe and comfortable (because they are not water-cooled), or in biofuels, then it is entirely possible that over the long-term, the global energy market will change. This will certainly be true if the shale gas production, which, by the way, is a very new addition to the energy equation, delivers. If you saw a migration of our transportation network from gas to natural gas in the United States over the next generation, and that were copied in other places like China (because it is assumed that they have a reservoir of shale natural gas), then it is entirely possible that a change in the global energy markets occurs that would impact Saudi Arabia.

Smith introduces Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon her visit to Riyadh in 2011
Smith introduces Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon her visit to Riyadh in 2011

They are aware of this. There is a huge move towards renewables, with the major focus right now on solar and on nuclear power to reduce domestic consumption of oil. I am always reminded when asked this question of a former minister of petroleum: he said the stone age did not end because they ran out of rocks, and the oil age won’t end because they run out of oil. It will end because something else comes to the forefront. That is what you are seeing. It will be incremental and happen over time.

The Politic: You also noted earlier that Saudi Arabia is, relatively, a bedrock of stability in the midst of the Arab Spring, which has taken place over the past two years. Could you address if the Arab Spring has touched Saudi Arabia in any capacity, and if so, in what ways it can be felt and if you see it persisting at all into the future?

Most people, when they think of the Arab Spring, think of the overthrow of a government. If that is your definition, then no, Saudi Arabia has not had an Arab Spring. My definition of the Arab Spring is much different from that. Applying my definition, yes, the Arab Spring has happened here in Saudi Arabia, it is ongoing and it will continue for many years. The definition that I have developed from watching events here in the region is that you have whole populations that no longer see themselves as subjects, but rather see themselves as citizens. They see themselves as citizens that have a right to free speech and demand that their governments are responsive and transparent in the process.

We started seeing this in Saudi Arabia in November of 2009. We reported on it, but we did not know what it meant at the time. It occurred during the Jeddah floods in the last week in November and the first week of December of 2009, when a big rain hit. Water poured off the mountains west of Mecca and washed through Jeddah, killing hundreds of people. [The floods] washed through whole housing developments that had been built without consideration for the floodplains and without the infrastructure that a big city needed. There was an outcry from the people of Jeddah: where did the money go? It was a huge uproar. There was no attempt by the government here to suppress any of that criticism. In fact, there was another flood the next year. Even though the government’s response to the Jeddah flood was that it was a 1,000-year flood, the people of Jeddah said, “Excuse me, where did the money go?” The public criticism of a local government was sharp and very public.

The other thing that was happening in Jeddah was a forming of groups of people led mainly by women and young people who were responding to the needs of flood victims — in some cases saving lives and in other cases collecting blankets and food. They were all volunteers and self-organized. It was fascinating to watch. At the time, we recognized that this was important, but that we did not yet know what it meant. On reflection, the social contract broke down in Jeddah in 2009 because it was very clear from the volunteer movement and the support of the community that the people now considered themselves citizens. If you are a subject, you do not do that; that is the government job. If you see yourself as a citizen, you do it automatically, and that was what was happening. Over the course of the next year, we saw this proliferation of volunteer activities, some of which were sponsored by members of the Royal Family.  One example of this is the National Family Safety Center, which is a network of domestic abuse centers around the Kingdom. There was also a whole panoply of initiatives that went into the bucket of the evolution of civil society at the local level. It was fascinating to watch.

My argument is yes, an Arab Spring is going on here, driven by the ubiquitousness of information, the ability of people to debate issues, to organize, to get information out and to have an opinion on things. The question became, what does the government do about it? This government actually showed remarkable agility in being able to respond to the key issues that this population was focused on. It was things like housing, jobs, corruption, civil society initiatives and the security apparatus. There was a large economic package announced in March of 2011 — about 138 billion riyals — targeted toward housing and employment. They have not solved all of those problems yet, but it is very clear that they are focused on them and the population knows that. The debate over these issues is apparent every day on the blogosphere and on Twitter. This government has actually been very responsive to what is on the average Saudi citizen’s mind, and as a result, you have stability. Where governments have responded, and have the ability and resources to respond, which is the case for most of the monarchies in the gulf, you have stability. Where the governments have fought back and not responded, you have a problem.

The Politic: In terms of people viewing themselves as citizens rather than subjects, back in September of 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would now have the right to vote in future municipal elections and to join the advisory Shura Council. Do you believe that this is a legitimate step towards full-scale female political participation in the Kingdom and do you foresee any changing dialogue with regards to women’s role in politics any time in the foreseeable future?

There are 30 women on the Shura Council. The percentage of women on the Shura Council is identical to the percentage of women in the U.S. Senate. If you want to compare their legislative branch to ours, I would say that the numbers are equal. 27 of the 30 women on the Shura Council are either doctors or Ph.Ds. There are more women Ph.D.’s on the Shura Council than there are men or women who have Ph.D.’s in our entire Congress. The generalization about women in Saudi Arabia is sometimes a little misguided. By the way, it wasn’t just allowing women to vote in the municipal elections; the King said women would be able to run as candidates as well.

What is more important, I think, than the King’s decree, is what women are themselves doing in the Kingdom, because they will drive this change themselves. Women in Saudi Arabia never frontally assault a problem. When we do not see them demonstrating or raising their voices, we assume that they are docile and do not have a voice. The reality of it is that they are masters of getting their way, but they don’t attack issues directly. What you are seeing is a generation of highly educated young women that are working diligently to establish themselves. They will be the ones who define the future of this country.

Now, for all of the criticism that we hear about the Saudis — and, in fact, we are in constant dialogue about the rate of modernization — keep in mind that in 1965 the literacy rate of women in the country of Saudi Arabia was 5 percent. Today, 60 percent of the college students are women. All of this has changed since the time I was in high school. For all of the challenges they face and all of the criticism that we tend to give the Saudis, we want to keep in mind that they have had a remarkable transformation over two generations. I expect that transformation to continue, and it will continue in the context of their culture and their religion not as defined by westerners who have their own ideas about what it ought to look like.

The Politic: On the same note, have you seen any such transformation taking place in terms of human rights as well as religious freedoms within the Kingdom?

Three of the core tenets of our bilateral relationship are our commitment to human rights, women’s rights and religious freedom. Sometimes, those are challenged because we see things a little differently. The human rights challenge is sometimes overstated. Third country nationals are challenged here, but the Saudis have set up human rights commissions and they are dealing with those things. The response is sometimes not as quick as we would like, but it is nonetheless an issue that we are addressing on an ongoing basis. I have already talked a little about women’s rights, and I see a generation of young women empowered to define their role.

Smith welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry to Embassy employees upon his visit to Riyadh in 2013
Smith welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry to Embassy employees upon his visit to Riyadh in 2013

Religious freedom is a bit of a challenge. In [this], a Muslim country, you have to be a Muslim to be a Saudi. You have this entrenched conservative population that firmly believes that the prophet Mohammad wanted Arabia to be Muslim and it is very difficult to have a public acceptance of other religions. That is a challenge. On the other hand, I will tell you that private religious services go on routinely. When there is no overt attempt to proselytize, we are able to practice our faith in private. All of the embassies here support that, and we have not had any government interference with that.

As a side note, two summers ago, an Evangelical minister petitioned and was allowed to conduct a private revival service one weekend in Riyadh. The Ministry of Interior approved and allowed it. It is kind of a mixed bag.

The Politic: As a final question, in terms of the perception of the United States from your work, serving around the world, how do you feel that the United States is represented abroad? 

People in Saudi Arabia love America. They have gone to school there and they vacation there; we issued 110,000 visas last year. They compartmentalize in ways that we don’t. They can see the good part of America, and they can separate that from criticism of American foreign policy. American policy in the region, starting with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, has certainly created criticism of America and its policies in the region. There is the longstanding perception here that America’s policy towards the Middle East peace process is one-sided, which is why the President and the Secretary’s recent initiative here is such a very positive development. I will tell you that President Obama brought a new and more positive America to the region.

There is a lot of hope and expectation, much of it centered on the peace process and the establishment of the independent state of Palestine. The frustration is that it has not happened yet. But with this President and both Secretaries of State, you are seeing a warming even on the criticism of our policies. There was a Zogby poll that came out in November of last year. Four years ago, the support for America in Saudi Arabia was about 22 percent. In the last poll, support was at 74 percent. So there has been a shift there too; but again, they want to come to America for education and for vacations. We are still challenged sometimes with the legacies and decisions we have made in the past, but we keep pressing on.


Embassy of the United States to Saudi Arabia:

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Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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