Commentary Magazine


Among the Saudis

To the Editor:
I was pleased to meet Joshua Muravchik in Saudi Arabia, and I read the memoir of his trip with great interest [“My Saudi Sojourn,” May]. Especially welcome for me was his remembrance of the victims of the 2004 attack by al Qaeda on the American consulate in Jeddah, but I would like to correct two small errors in his account.

Mr. Muravchik states that “four foreign nationals who worked [at the consulate] were slaughtered.” In fact, five staff members—respectively from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Yemen, and Sudan—were killed while protecting the consulate. An additional eleven people (including one American diplomat) were wounded.

Particular recognition must be given to one member of our Local Guard Force—Jaufar Sadik of Sri Lanka. Without protective cover, Sadik bravely returned fire from three terrorists who entered the compound of the consulate general. It was he—not a Marine guard, as Mr. Muravchik suggests—who killed the terrorist leader and prevented further carnage. Moments later, Sadik himself was killed by a fourth terrorist who came from behind and shot him fatally in the head.

I should also note that the Saudi security forces at the consulate demonstrated similar bravery. Three guards were killed and two wounded in the effort to recapture the compound from the terrorists.

Tatiana C. Gfoeller
U.S. Consul General
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

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To the Editor:
It can only be salutary that Joshua Muravchik has finally visited Saudi Arabia, and been able to see for himself that the Saudis are not scimitar-waving monsters looking for infidels to behead. He seems to have learned quite a lot during his stay, and I commend COMMENTARY for publishing his findings.

Readers of Mr. Muravchik’s account, however, might have been better served if he had done a bit more homework before undertaking his trip. It is unfortunate that he begins his article by expressing surprise that a Jew could obtain an entry visa. It is true that Saudi Arabia once excluded Jews from its borders, but that taboo was broken by Henry Kissinger in 1974, and the State Department assigned Jewish diplomats to the kingdom shortly after that. Dozens of Jewish journalists, officials, and communal leaders have been granted visas since then, and the entire subject has not been an issue since the late 1980’s.

The government of Saudi Arabia made a deliberate policy decision in the late 1980’s to end an estrangement from American Jews that was not doing either side any good. The person chosen to lead the campaign of outreach to American Jews was Adel al-Jubair, then a young diplomat on the staff of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Al-Jubair was so successful that he became known informally as the “ambassador to the Jews.” Today, of course, he is himself the ambassador in Washington.

Thomas Lippman
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik’s account of his journey to Saudi Arabia brought back memories of a U.S.-government-sponsored trip I took to the kingdom in 1981. While there, I asked my escort from the American embassy in Riyadh to translate the text of my visa. It turned out that while in my application I had listed “Jewish” as my religion, the Saudi embassy in Washington had apparently substituted the Arabic word for “none.” Interestingly, too, many Saudis that I met stopped at my name: “Steinberg,” they would muse, “is that Jewish?” When I affirmed that it was, they professed nonchalance. Invariably, however, came the tough follow-up question: “But are you a Zionist?”

I gather from Mr. Muravchik’s anecdotes that Saudi Arabia has modernized significantly since the 1980’s. During my visit, I was detained briefly by police for snapping a photograph of a playful boy on a street in Riyadh. At the Intercontinental Hotel, where I stayed, the pool was used only by male guests, and the housekeeping staff was all male. At homes that I visited (where the hospitality was effusive), there was a separate living room for each sex. I was invited one afternoon to a public square to witness the administration of some kind of corporal punishment. At the outdoor marketplace where I opted to spend the time instead, I saw gem merchants leave expensive merchandise unattended—few worries about stealing, apparently. New cars would be abandoned in the desert for the slightest malfunction because auto dealerships were not yet able to service what they sold. There were none of the fast-food franchises and tabloids that Mr. Muravchik saw in such abundance.

In general, I find that today’s Saudi leaders are increasingly pragmatic. But only time will tell how well they will be able to navigate between the country’s intolerant religious base and the young moderns who accept Western influence and even the existence of Israel.

Arnold Steinberg
Calabasas, California

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To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik’s reflections on his sojourn in Saudi Arabia as a Jew brought to mind a legend about the architect Gordon Bunshaft, who worked for many years with the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and whose many distinguished designs include New York’s Lever House (1951) and Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum (1974). In the 1970’s, Bunshaft was commissioned to work on the Hajj Terminal and the National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia. But Bunshaft was also a Jew, and according to the legend never laid eyes on either building.

Brian Levite
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:
I was taken aback by Joshua Muravchick’s comment about being in Saudi Arabia among veiled women: “For me, beer or wine with dinner and the chance to admire the beauty of women are among life’s quotidian joys; I missed them.” If this is his approach to women—as objects to be admired—maybe it is just as well that they cover themselves!

It would seem that both Mr. Muravchik and those who would mandate the hijab feel that men can only respond to women sexually. Those of us who find this kind of covering inherently problematic have more (misplaced?) confidence in men; we hope that they can see women as people who make contributions to society beyond their looks.

Lina Zerbarini
New Haven, Connecticut

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JOSHUA MURAVCHIK writes:
I thank Tatiana C. Gfoeller for correcting and adding to my account of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, and for using the occasion to pay homage to the brave employees who were its victims.

I thank Thomas Lippman for the information he provides, despite his condescension, but I fear the story is not as clear as he would have it. At least some Jewish members of the U.S. diplomatic staff in Saudi Arabia do not reveal their religion for fear that this would hinder their work. A number of Saudis with whom I spoke were under the impression that Jews had not been admitted to the kingdom until a short time ago. And as recently as 2004, a Saudi government website set up to provide visa information specified that Jews were not eligible. The offending clause was soon removed, and Saudi officials said that it had been a mistake. But apparently I am not the only one—see also the letters of Arnold Steinberg and Brian Levite —who has been confused about the matter of Saudi Arabia and the Jews.

To Lina Zerbarini I would submit that there is no contradiction in respecting women for the full range of their talents and accomplishments while also thinking of them as the fairer sex. 

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