By Linda Smith
Former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert W. Jordan, visited the University of Dallas on Wednesday, Nov. 12. He revealed much from his time spent in Saudi Arabia from October 2001 to October 2003 in an interview with fellow litigator and Dallas-area lawyer Orrin Harrison.
There was a great deal of controversy surrounding Jordan’s ascension to the position of ambassador. Jordan had become a personal friend of George W. Bush after meeting him at a party years prior to his presidential campaign. When Bush became president, he wanted Jordan in his administration. Bush offered him the position of ambassador, which Jordan accepted in the spring of 2001. After learning of the 9/11 attacks, Jordan said he knew “that [his] life had changed forever,” since Osama bin Laden, who later claimed responsibility for the attacks, had originally been a Saudi Arabian citizen.
“My job was to try to keep the price of oil below $28 a barrel and also to deal with emerging threats of terrorism,” Jordan said. “Something on the scale of what happened on 9/11 was the furthest thing from our minds at the time.”
The paperwork for his hire to ambassador position had been lost on a desk, and as a result, his appointment hearing was postponed from Sept. 4, to Sept. 11 and then to Sept. 12.
“The media, always happy to second-guess, said, ‘Why was it that President Bush waited until Sept. 12 to finally nominate somebody to be the ambassador to Saudi Arabia?’ which had been left vacant for about six months,” Jordan said.
Bin Laden had already been exiled to Sudan for committing acts of terrorism. He was stripped of his Saudi Arabian citizenship in 1994.
Jordan described the government of Saudi Arabia as being like “two governments: those who got it and those who didn’t.” At the time of the 9/11 attacks, King Fahd, then the ruler of Saudi Arabia, had been largely incapacitated due to illness, so then-Crown Prince Abdullah, a conservative, ruled in his place.
“I think he understood that the ideological ammunition for what happened and had been percolating in Saudi Arabia for quite some time,” Jordan said. “The Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud [Al-Faisal] understood even better and he was abject in his apologies, and abject in his remorse over what some of the sons of Saudi Arabia had done.”
According to Jordan, however, “[Minister of Interior Prince Nayef], who should have had the best handle on terrorist threats within Saudi Arabia, was in denial, as were several of the others. They would say, ‘This could not possibly have been Saudis who did this.’”
In the end, it was Jordan who convinced them of the truth.
“I finally had to bring out a briefing team from the CIA who had forensic and other evidence to convince the senior princes that these truly were Saudis who were among the hijackers,” he said.
The culture of Saudi Arabia has grown wealthy from having Mecca and Medina, the two most important cities in the Islamic region, within its borders. Jordan said that the idea that education is not necessary in order to have a productive job is prevalent amongst Saudi men.
“In Saudi Arabia, you really do not develop that work ethic,” he explained. “They had several generations of a feeling of entitlement.”
That feeling of entitlement, coupled with the existence of Al Qaeda members who had helped the U.S. drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, contributed to an environment that encouraged the sentiments that led to 9/11, according to Jordan.
“We had no plan after the Soviets left Afghanistan, or what to do with all these foreign fighters who had cut their teeth on the rough terrain of Afghanistan, on all of the terrorist methods that made them so successful,” Jordan said. “They couldn’t find jobs, they became further alienated from Saudi society, they would gather in extremist mosques where they would be easily influenced by imams in the mosques who didn’t know much about the Koran or Islam that would teach a perverted version of Islam and gather many followers.”
Jordan worked throughout his term as ambassador to strengthen the fragile relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
After the interview with Harrison, students asked Jordan about diplomacy in the current administration. He offered his thoughts on how there have been no obvious positive developments out of the Arab Spring movement and how he feels that Syria can end its civil war through “training and developing moderate forces,” although he is skeptical at how successful those forces would be. He also gave his views on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“ISIS is simply the latest manifestation of religious extremism that pervades much of the Middle East,” Jordan said, adding that the movement does not show signs of losing steam. “I think the United States has done something to contribute to this. I think the invasion of Iraq in hindsight has helped recruit a lot of extremists. I think the failure to deal with issues of authority in the Middle East has been a huge problem.”
Jordan said that when thinking about Middle East activities, past and present, it is most important to remember not only the environment, but also how American thoughts and actions have added to it, and how we can move to stop and prevent it.