Friday, May 21, 2010

By Larry Favinger
Staff Columnist

There was a lot of information revealed to Berwick Academy students last week by James B. Smith, a retired Air Force general, now the United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
One of the most unexpected is the increasing role of women in that oil-rich country and their impact on the country’s daily life and future.
Ambassador Smith, who served as assistant deputy commander for operations of the 4404th Provisional Wing stationed at Dhahran Air Base in Saudi Arabia, flying several combat sorties during Desert Storm during the Gulf War, noted that more than 60 percent of that country’s college enrollment is women, and last year more than 50 percent of the college graduates were women.
In addition there are more than 27,000 Saudis attending colleges in the United States.
“Young women want to contribute to the stability of their country,” he said, noting the growing influence of women. He said King Abdullah is especially influenced by his wife and daughters as he “drags his country kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”
A prime example of this trend is the establishment of a Women’s Empowerment Center in the middle of one of the most conservative towns in the country.
Ambassador Smith, a native of Salem, N.H., whose niece attends Berwick Academy, talked about a wide range of topics including the need for stability in the Middle East.
He told the students to learn about Yemen. That country is, he said, beset by internal unrest while at the same time out of both oil and water. “Your generation will know Yemen,” he said.
Smith, who was appointed to his position by President Obama, said the United States will continue to “stand up for Israel” but added that the Palestinians also “deserve a homeland.”
The basic problem, he said, was that the Palestinians want a homeland and Israel wants security and one will never happen without the other. Agreements in this area must be based on “respect and trust” and in order for that to occur “the people of the region have to recognize the right of the others to live there.”
Settlement is possible, he said, but the window will not last forever.
“I must be the new guy,” Ambassador Smith said, “because I’m still optimistic.”
The nuclear issue in Iran is also a front burner item because if Iran manages to become a nuclear power, five or six other nations in the region will follow that lead. The ambassador noted that President Obama is working for a nuclear free world and that makes the negotiations with Iran so important.
Ambassador Smith said the relationship between the Saudis and the United States began years ago and was based on oil for security, but over the intervening years that relationship has become “infinitely more complicated.”
He and his family have found the Saudis to be “a wonderfully warm people” and he stressed the “need for a close relationship” with them. One of his goals on his current trip is to establish a student exchange program, which would have American students traveling to Saudi Arabia and living there for a specific period of time while the Saudi counterparts are living and learning in the United States.
Despite their vast resources of oil, the Saudis are extremely active in the areas of alternative fuels and have had about the same progress as the United States.
“They are deeply committed to an alternative energy program,” he said, noting the government there wants to reduce the use of oil so it can be conserved and sold to other countries.
“We need an energy dialogue” with the Saudis, he said.
Ambassador Smith concluded by telling the students they “are much better (prepared) to face the world than I was. Involve yourself in something to make a difference.”
Photo caption: U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James B. Smith. (Courtesy photo)