Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki, Students in U.S. Rebuild Bridges of Understanding

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PRINCE TURKI Al-Faisal spent his last days as Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States the way he spent much of his 17-month tour-speaking to students and frankly answering Americans' questions about his country. His humor, charm and candor won over Americans deeply suspicious of all things Saudi following the 9/11 attacks. On Jan. 29, during Prince Turki's final week in Washington, DC, the Washington Report's publisher, Andrew Killgore, executive editor Richard Curtiss, and this writer asked Prince Turki about his accomplishments and his future plans.

Even though Prince Turki was one of Washington's most accessible diplomats, catching up with him was not easy. His full calendar included speaking engagements at universities in New Jersey, Utah and Kansas, as well as talks in Washington, DC to students at The American University, George Washington University and at Georgetown, where on Feb. 2 he took part in a discussion and screening of the film "Abdulaziz," about the building of modern Saudi Arabia. Among the many business dinners or luncheons on his schedule was the inauguration at the Library of Congress of the Arab-American Yearbook: The Resource and Referral Guide For and About Arab Americans, as well as numerous media interviews.

As ambassador, Prince Turki spent much of his time crisscrossing the United States. He visited 25 states, and gave countless speeches in an effort to promote his country and its people and discuss Middle East peace with average Americans, especially students. "Everywhere I've gone I've been received very warmly, with tremendous hospitality," Prince Turki told the Washington Report. "Once in a while I would get a hostile question about the Kingdom and the things we all agree we have problems with. We are not free of sin. But, all in all, I've had a fair ear from American audiences."

Despite his grueling schedule, Ambassador Turki always seemed relaxed and jovial. He made every audience, as well as visitors to his office, feel special.

Succeeding Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served from 1983 to 2005, Prince Turki was appointed ambassador to the U.S. in July 2005 by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. Earlier that year, in April 2005, King Abdullah had met with President George W. Bush at the latter's Crawford, TX ranch, and both leaders agreed to rejuvenate a Saudi scholarship program and streamline a still rigorous U.S. visa process in order to encourage more Saudi undergraduate students to study in U.S. colleges and universities.

In order to boost Saudi Arabia's image in the United States, and visa versa, the King decided to use both nations' greatest assets: their young people.

The desert Kingdom is blessed with bountiful oil reserves, Prince Turki noted, but every Saudi Arabian knows that oil is a finite resource. "We know that our best and infinite resource is our people," he explained, "so while we enrich ourselves from one, we must invest in the other."

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001 there were more than 7,000 Saudi students studying in the United States. "After that day," Prince Turki said, "our relationship, which had lasted in calm for some 60 years, was plunged into crisis. It was a horrible period of time. Our country, our faith, and our national character were maligned almost daily in books, newspapers and on television."

By September 2005 the number of Saudi students studying in the States had plummeted to just over 2,000, the prince continued, because "Saudi parents were worried about the safety of their children. Visa regulations were very strict and one misunderstanding or infraction was reason enough to ship students home or even land them in jail."

Capitalizing on this distrust, countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom recruited Saudi students for their own schools.

In remarks to students at Kansas State University on Jan. 26, Prince Turki summarized his own difficult diplomatic role. …