Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Communication is both art and science. You may be born with the gift, but you need to work on it. Certain tools that come with education and experience are needed. You should know what you are talking about and whom you are talking to, master the language preferred by your audience, and prepare well with information and training.
We all need good communicators. You need to sell your convictions, products, and messages to all kinds of people at all levels for so many purposes. At home, shop and government, whether you are selling a new budgetary system, a new toothbrush or a political candidate, good communication skills are essential.
Saudis and Americans found themselves in dire need of outstanding communicators after Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately, there was shortage of such talent on both sides. Somehow, we couldn’t communicate well for many years. Things are improving, but still ... a lot needs to be done before we declare victory.
Needless to say, we were totally taken by surprise. In the beginning, we, Saudis, couldn’t believe that some of our own committed such horrible and sophisticated crime. We were stuck in the denial mode for too long.
Some still are. This cost us very precious time. By the moment we moved, it was almost too late to repair the damage, let alone improve the image of our nation, culture and people. Our enemies, on both sides, used the stall to further the damage and their agenda. Religious radicals, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, crossed interests and locked moves to break all bridges between Islam and the West, Saudi and American.
Where have all of us, Saudi and Americans, gone wrong? First, we should have seen it coming — not necessarily at the same magnitude. The omens were plenty. Radicalism on all sides was increasing. Israel was pushing the envelope. Peace projects — UN-sanctioned, US-guaranteed deals — were ignored. Arab and Muslim anger was boiling.
From our ivory towers, we were watching. Some of us tried to understand. Many were happy with their packaged explanations. Little was done to contain the phenomena. Our priorities were different. Economic woes, domestic politics and other distractions took our eyes away from the ball. When it finally hit us, we were poorly prepared to act — except in anger. Our actions were actually reactions. Our audience was mostly domestic.
Second, we were in the denial mode for too long. This is natural human behavior, but hardly wise. When faced with an ugly truth, we tend to disbelieve, refuse admittance, and return fire with fire: Criticism with criticism, accusations with accusations. Lots of valuable time and effort are wasted in the process. In the meanwhile, the bad guys are working round the clock to boost their gains and increase our losses.
Third, in time of perceived danger, people tend to ignore their differences and stick together. Right or wrong, they retreat to the siege mentality. In such a mode, no mistake is admitted, and not even an inch is given away. That might be understandable or excusable, if, at least, you search your soul then admit and fix your problems. Staying the course, no matter how wrong, is suicidal.
Still, it is not too late. Communication, in my opinion, is the key. We started in the last couple of years to build and rebuild some bridges. To increase the momentum and speed up the pace, we should improve our tools.
We come from different cultures and speak different languages, but that is a challenge, not an obstacle.
Many Saudis studied in America, and many Americans worked in Saudi Arabia. They lived in their host countries for years, made friends, explored the culture, and some even intermarried.
Most feel depressed about the post-9/11 state of our relations. They are fired and ready to do something about it. All we need is some training, organization and support.
Let’s imagine we start some sort of Saudi-US friends clubs here and there, link them tighter, and provide them with channels and avenues to communicate with media and public.
Sponsored visits, conferences, visitor and student exchange programs and so many other activities and events can spring out and spread around. In time, we will win, because, when given a choice, people prefer peace and cooperation to hate and confrontation. This is especially true when the storms of anger and confusion pass, as they did. It is now time for reflection, reassessment, repair and reconnection. It is now time for educated, enlightened, well-thought and organized action. It is now time for the good guys to prevail.