A Taste of Saudi Arabia’s Culture on the Upper West Side

My friends and colleagues from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations came to New York City from Washington, D.C., to participate in meetings and events on the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. As is traditionally the case, the very active week sees heads of state and government leaders converge on the city where proceedings at the UN are augmented by numerous events organized by diplomatic civil society and business communities. For New Yorkers such as myself, the annual global gathering – focused on peace, security, economic growth, sustainable development, the promotion of justice, and, generally, efforts in pursuit of lofty ideals – is visible as we navigate our daily lives.

This year, my colleagues and I were able to begin the week transcending the usual gridlock and madness with a unique Sunday evening invitation. It took us to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where we had the privilege to attend the Saudi National Orchestra’s debut performance in the United States, the “Marvels of Saudi Music,” at the iconic Metropolitan Opera House. The concert featured female and male performers, musicians, dancers, vocalists, and musical talent all hailing from the Kingdom. A lineup of traditional Saudi and Arabian Peninsula performances captivated our senses, and brought the sounds and musical traditions of the Arab region right to New York.

Arriving at the Lincoln Center. (Left to right) Mr. John Pratt, Chairman of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Board of Directors; Mr. Fahad Nazer, Spokesperson for the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C.; Colonel (Ret.) Abbas Dahouk, National Council Board of Directors Member and HyphenPoint LLC Principal; myself, National Council Board of Directors Member, and author and artist; and Mr. Patrick Mancino, National Council Executive Vice President and Director of Development.

The event was held under the patronage of His Highness Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, the Minister of Culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Performances included pieces from the Saudi National Orchestra, the Saudi Performing Arts Ensemble, and legendary American jazz musicians from the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars.

As Saudi Arabia implements its national development strategy known as Vision 2030, one objective is to develop a performing arts sector that can share Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage with the rest of the world. Simultaneously, space for more entertainment (and tourism) in the Kingdom – that includes AMC movie theaters, concerts, events, and world-class athletes in competition – is being created in a style, time, and manner consistent with a nation that is also a place of pilgrimage and prayer for 1.8 billion Muslims across the globe. The leadership of Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy and develop domestic industries that can meet the anticipated employment needs of its youthful citizens. 63% of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30.

Attendees at the event, in addition to Minister of Culture HH Prince Badr, included former Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, and Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud; the first female Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud; and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister HH Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Their royal presence underscored the importance and seriousness of introducing these cultural aspects of the Kingdom to the United States. In addition, New York City Mayor Eric Adams was joined alongside others including journalist and senior Washington Post Editor, Lally Weymouth; Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody; longtime Wall Street Journal writer and author Karen Elliot House, among many others. Even President Biden’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Mr. Timothy Lenderking, and his team were in attendance to show their diplomatic and unofficial solidarity in appreciation of Arab culture and heritage.

During an intermission we had the privilege of seeing HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud. HRH will be a keynote speaker at the National Council’s 40th Anniversary Gala on November 16 in Washington, D.C. The Council has been very fortunate to have HRH make remarks at its annual gathering almost every year since 2006.

Welcoming remarks by Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb captured the spirit of the evening: “Art has the possibility of triumphing over adversity.”

The Saudi National Orchestra and Choir performed over the course of two and a half hours. The chorus was comprised of 18 men and 18 women in traditional dress, standing behind the orchestra. The orchestra included violins, some other stringed instruments, a variety of Saudi percussion instruments, and other instruments including the Oud, two beautiful Saudi wind instruments, and drums made out of desert materials. The sounds were new to many Western ears and a delight to the many in the audience who were students and working professionals from New York and the Arab region.

The program began with several folk art performances. They featured specific regions in the Kingdom and included dances by men wearing each region’s native costumes. The songs were familiar to those who knew the region.

Performances from the “Marvels of Saudi Orchestra.”

The orchestra and chorus departed after charming us all.

Performances from the “Marvels of Saudi Orchestra.”

The American Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars also took a turn gracing the stage. They performed several songs familiar to the Americans in the audience. Then, three leading musicians from the Saudi Orchestra joined the Dizzy musicians for a remarkable and memorable musical blending of the two cultures. Saxophonist Tim Ries praised the collaboration between the two countries. “We need no words, only the heart that beat together. We’ve become like family after only two days.”

Performances from the cross-cultural musical celebration at the Lincoln Center.

The addition of a Saudi Arabian soprano, Rimaz Oqbi, with a voice that reached the rafters, and perhaps the almighty, changed the presentation dramatically. Her operatic repertoire included songs in English, French, and Italian, with music that was delightfully familiar and that showcased the breadth of her talent.

The printed programs given to the audience were magnificent, covering the purpose of the event and the music (with translations in Arabic and English), and with descriptions of the folk art of the various regions. Even after leaving such a memorable event, through the publication audience members were able to amplify their understanding of the Kingdom and its efforts to reach out to the world.

American and Saudi Arabian musicians take a bow, arm-in-arm, after bringing joy to the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

The musicians who we enjoyed have already performed in Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and in Paris, Mexico City, and in Jordan. Many more appearances are scheduled and being planned across the globe and on the world stage.

As Saudi Arabian men and women closed the evening’s first act with an Arabized version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” the consensus among us was that we had somehow managed to indulge in the magic of New York City while simultaneously being transported to Arabia, and shown some of the Kingdom’s hidden treasures. Watch for more to come from a part of the planet that is only beginning to reveal its rich heritage and culture.

 

 

 

With contributions from National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Board Member Susan Wilson Bynum.

National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Announces Landmark Executive Leadership Transition

H. Delano Roosevelt Appointed New President and CEO as Organization Founder Dr. John Duke Anthony Becomes Strategic Advisor

Washington, D.C., U.S.A.: As it marks its 40th anniversary, the Board of Directors of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (“National Council” or “Council”), an American non-profit, non-governmental, educational organization, is proud to announce that Mr. H. Delano Roosevelt has been appointed the National Council’s second President and Chief Executive Officer, effective October 1, 2023. Founding President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. John Duke Anthony will retire on September 30, 2023. He will remain with the Council as a Strategic Advisor to the new President and CEO.

Mr. Roosevelt remarked: “It is with great pleasure and humility that I accept the position of President and CEO of the National Council. I have enjoyed being associated with this splendid organization for many years and would like to thank the Board of Directors for having the confidence in me to serve them and the Council in this new capacity for years to come. I would also like to thank Dr. John Duke Anthony for his added confidence and very much look forward to working with him in his new capacity as Founding Senior Advisor.”

Mr. Roosevelt is the grandson of former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and a descendant of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. He has an extensive history of professional and philanthropic engagement in the Arab region, and has served on the National Council’s Board of Directors and its International Advisory Committee for many years. His dedication to building bridges of friendship and pursuing peace through mutual understanding positions him well to guide the Council into its next era.

Under the leadership of Dr. Anthony, the National Council has spent the past four decades tirelessly pursuing its mission to enhance American knowledge and understanding of the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world. Since 1983, the organization has played a vital role in nurturing dialogue, fostering educational initiatives, and cultivating exchanges between the United States and the Arab region. The Council’s Board of Directors expressed their gratitude to Dr. Anthony for his long and distinguished service.

Mr. H. Delano Roosevelt (at podium) and Dr. John Duke Anthony (seated at table) sharing the stage at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 2022 Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference.

Dr. Anthony, who was intimately involved in the selection process, said: “I am thrilled that my trusted colleague and dear friend will be taking up the mantle. The United States and America’s friends, allies, and strategic partners will be pleased with this announcement. One could not ask for a more qualified individual with whom to work in our quest to place the cultural and people-to-people components of the Arab-U.S. relationship on the firmest foundation possible.

“It is my firm belief that only through education, understanding, and cultural exchange can Americans and Arabs alike be more aware and appreciative of the mutually reciprocal ties that link us in myriad ways, which are the envy of the rest of the world. Going forward, education and exchange between our two peoples will continue to serve humanity and make our world a better place.”

The National Council will celebrate its 40th Anniversary at a gala to be held on November 16, 2023, at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington. The evening program will include a silent auction, music and entertainment, keynote remarks, and the recognition of several outstanding leaders. In addition to commemorating four decades of Council programs, projects, events, and activities, the event will also celebrate Dr. Anthony’s legacy of academic scholarship and promoting dialogue. As it marks four decades of advancing mutual understanding, the Council looks forward to building on its work and charting a course ahead in pursuit of its educational mission.

About the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations: Founded in 1983 and based in Washington, D.C., the National Council is an American non-profit, non-governmental, educational organization dedicated to improving American knowledge and understanding of the Arab region. Information about the Council’s programs, projects, publications, public affairs events, and outreach activities can be found at ncusar.org.

National Council on US-Arab Relations Signs Memorandum of Understanding with King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies

 

Organizations to Collaborate on Programs, Publications, and Activities Analyzing the Gulf Cooperation Council, its Six Member-Countries, Arabia and the Gulf, and U.S. Relations with the Region

Washington, DC, USA & Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: The Washington, D.C., U.S.A.-based National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (National Council) recently executed a Memorandum of Understanding for future strategic cooperation on matters of mutual interest with the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS). The National Council and the King Faisal Center agreed to coordinate efforts to promote understanding of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its member countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), regional and international issues affecting the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula regions, and the multifaceted and mutually beneficial U.S.-Gulf relationship. Through research projects, educational programs, events, and activities, the organizations will pursue creating greater national, regional, and international awareness on issues pertaining to security, stability, peace, and sustainable development in the Gulf region. Under the Memorandum of Understanding each party will maintain its independent status.

National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony said that the agreement, “formalizes a longstanding cooperative relationship between our two organizations. Working with the King Faisal Center strengthens the National Council’s efforts to help build and maintain as many new and existing U.S.-Arab friendships, alliances, and strategic partnerships as possible. The Council looks forward to continue cooperating with the King Faisal Center to provide a platform for a wellspring of academic, intellectual, and cultural knowledge for humanity.”

King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies Chairman HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud (at podium) has regularly been a featured keynote speaker at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conferences since HRH first addressed the forum in 2006. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, 2017.

Dr. Anthony highlighted that “the National Council, as an educational organization, is dedicated to improving American awareness and appreciation of the multifaceted mutuality of benefits that derive from the Arab-U.S. relationship. In its efforts to help strengthen and sustain these benefits, the Council undertakes a variety of activities. Among them are months-long student internships, study abroad scholarships, educating and training the future generation of Arab region specialists, participation in annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conferences, and, in 24 American cities and five Arab countries annually, leadership development programs that have reached more than 50,000 emerging leaders.”

About the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations: Founded in 1983 and based in Washington, D.C., the National Council is an American non-profit, non-governmental, educational organization dedicated to improving American knowledge and understanding of the Arab region. Information about the Council’s program, projects, events, and activities can be found at ncusar.org.

About the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies: The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies was established by the King Faisal Foundation. Its goal is to further the late King Faisal’s mission of enhancing knowledge and understanding about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. The King Faisal Center has long served as a leading academic, intellectual, and cultural hub. Information about the Center’s programs, projects, events, and activities can be found at kfcris.com.

NEOM ~ The Line

Our common understanding about cities is informed by how they developed. In lower density or rural areas, they tend to be small with less associated infrastructure and plenty of room for people to spread out. When cities are near water, they reflect it commercially—often geared toward facilitating trade and the movement of goods. As populations grow, cities expand outward and, as constrained by geography, often upward. As space becomes more valuable, cities eventually grow vertically. The wealthy will often occupy the high floors, with good views; the poor then live in their shadow.

As cities grow, the roads, sewers, and services must also expand, bit by bit. Transportation systems develop and evolve to move inhabitants as they need, utilizing new modes of transportation through streets and tunnels often built for something prior. Congestion, pollution, and complaints are inevitable byproducts of these familiar processes.

But what if there was a different way?

Saudi Arabia’s current population is 32 million. It is projected to reach about 45 million by 2050. Yes, it is a large country — it occupies 830,000 square miles, making it the fifth-largest country in Asia, second largest in the Arab region, and the largest in West Asia and the Middle East. Given its size, it is understandable that some people do not quite grasp that some of its existing infrastructure is at risk of having its capacity strained as growth continues. Fortunately, there is plenty of wonderful space for development.

Location of NEOM in northwest Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has two unique assets: great space and great wealth. And, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has a flair for bold projects. One noteworthy project’s ambition is signaled by its name: NEOM. The first three letters come from the Ancient Greek prefix neo, meaning “new.” The “M” is from Mustaqbal, an Arabic word meaning “future.” It is also the first initial of the Crown Prince’s name.

Map of NEOM.

In the West and in large cities around the globe, “biggest” and “newest” often mean a 100-some-story steel needle dominating the skyline. In Saudi Arabia, where NEOM’s first goal is “thinking differently about everything,” one particular project is, literally, a new city that aims to be 100% sustainable. It is being designed to be walkable and rely completely on renewable energy. “The Line,” as it is called, is envisioned to stretch over 105 miles (170 kilometers) on the Red Sea coast in the northwestern Saudi Arabian province of Tabuk.

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Jeddah ~ Al-Balad ~ “The Town”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom (twice), Greece, and Portugal combined. In reference to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River. Saudi Arabia is more than 3 times the size of the state of Texas.

globe centered on the Arabian peninsula with Saudi Arabia highlighted

Saudi Arabia shares land borders with seven countries: Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Across a 16 miles (25 kilometer) causeway in the Gulf lies the island kingdom of Bahrain.

With over 35 million inhabitants, Saudi Arabia has 13 provinces all united by the Arabic language, but each with unique dialects, traditions, cuisines, landscapes, and heritage.

One cannot help but be moved by the imposing contours and beauty of the seemingly endless, ever-changing, windswept Arabian dunes, the sand-washed ancient cities, and the sparkling waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

saudi arabia relief map

Relief map of Saudi Arabia

There are no permanent rivers or lakes in the Kingdom.

The desert, often scorching hot by day, can become surprisingly cold at night. When it rains, the water gathers and is stored in the dampened sand. Little evaporation occurs once rain sinks below seven feet. It is believed that some plants today are still drawing moisture from rain that fell more than a thousand years ago.

There are still Bedouin tribes traditionally known for their bravery, chivalry, generosity, and hospitality in Saudi Arabia. Very few of them still live a nomadic life or depend solely on their animals for food. Most live near towns, hold jobs, send their children to school, and only camp in the desert during specific periods of the year.

Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

From Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger.

There are many cities as well as Bedouin areas on the Arabian Peninsula. Islam was born in two of those cities—Makkah and Medina. From there, the religion spread to a large swathe of the world, from Spain to China. As it expanded, it promoted a love of learning and science. Discoveries and developments from Arab and Muslim scientists provided the foundation for many of the ideas and concepts that were part of the European Renaissance and beyond.

In 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas. Through its Vision 2030 development plan it has made significant investments to develop infrastructure and promote its diverse collection of mountains, beaches, coral reefs, grasslands, and forests, let alone the largest sand sea in the world! Tourism and travel bridge people, time, and cultures, leading to deeper understanding.

When I was the Executive Vice President at the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, I traveled to Saudi Arabia several times.

I wanted to return.

I explored the Kingdom for 12 weeks in early 2022 with the purpose of writing and photographing the 13 regions of Saudi Arabia. I had the privilege of visiting Riyadh, AlUla, Madain Saleh, Tabuk, NEOM, Jeddah, Taif, Jubbah, Hail, Al Khobar, Dammam, Al-Ahsa, and Abha in the Asir Region.

This is about the seaside port of Jeddah on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

Like all ancient and living ocean ports, Jeddah is a place of access, of mixing, and of exchange. It has a history reaching back into biblical times.

Jeddah was derived from the Arabic word for “Grandmother” in reference to Eve who, as the myth recounts, was buried in Historic Jeddah at a site known as the “Cemetery of Our Mother Eve.”

Jeddah faces out across the Red Sea towards Africa just 120 miles to the west: towards Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.

Historic Jeddah has a rich tradition of harvesting rainwater. Around the 6th century CE, Persians settled in the city. They constructed the first water supply system in the form of wells and cisterns inside and out of the city walls to secure enough continuous fresh water.

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The Road to 2050: An Assessment of Arab Regional Possibilities and the Future of U.S. Cooperation

On August 9-10, 2023, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations will broadcast “The Road to 2050: An Assessment of Arab Regional Possibilities and the Future of U.S. Cooperation”—a unqiue series of online discussions and remarks where specialists examine trends shaping the future of Arab-U.S. relations.

  • Day 1 Schedule of Speakers and Sessions (pdf)
    • Includes:
    • “Future of U.S. Defense and Strategic Cooperation” Session
    • “Economic Impact and Energy Transition in the MENA Region” Session
    • Remarks from Dr. John Duke Anthony, Dr. Paul Salem, and Mr. Sean Carroll
  • Day 2 Schedule of Speakers and Sessions (pdf)
    • Includes:
    • “Empowering Arab Youth for the Future: Navigating Vision 2050 Trends and Challenges” Session
    • “Vision 2050: Major Trends Shaping the Future of the Arab World” Session
    • Remarks from Ms. Jasmine Zaki, Mr. Husam Kaid, and Dr. John Duke Anthony

Day 1

 

Day 2

Al-Ahsa: A Magical Oasis Rich in Natural and Cultural Heritage

Saudi Arabia is located on the Arabian Peninsula in southwest Asia. It shares land borders with Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen; and maritime borders with Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan. Its geography is dominated by Rub’ al Khali (also known as the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest continuous sand desert.

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

Saudi Arabia is the 13th largest nation in terms of land area. The Kingdom is four times the size of France, western Europe’s largest country.

On a geological timescale, the Arabian Peninsula is young. It separated from the main African continent approximately 25 million years ago, creating the Red Sea. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia’s desert has much in common with the Sahara. Indeed, the sands have the same orange coloration due to the presence of iron oxides.

I explored the Kingdom for three months last year with the purpose of writing about and photographing its natural beauty, history, and splendor. It was a rich and beguiling experience. Saudi Arabia is complicated, but fascinating and intriguing with its unique and special architecture, traditions, landscapes, and people. It is at once everything you have heard it to be and absolutely nothing like you have heard it to be.

map of saudi arabia with the eastern province highlighted in red

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

I spent some of my time staying on the beach in Al Aziziya in the Gulf.

sky turning orange over water with palm tree silhouettes in the foreground

Early morning is my favorite time. Watching the sun rise over the waters of the Gulf was never disappointing.

My friend Ahmed Almubarak and I went on a road trip to visit his family and explore Al-Ahsa.

Ahmed Almubarak and I en route to Al-Ahsa.

map of the Arabian Peninsula highlighting the location of Al-Ahsa

limestone cliffs on the roadside seen through a car window

Al-Ahsa is known for its natural limestone. Limestone is used to make cement.

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Among the Clouds in Taif: City of Roses

In 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas. Through its Vision 2030 development plan it has made significant investments to develop infrastructure and promote its diverse collection of mountains, beaches, coral reefs, grasslands, and forests, let alone the largest sand sea in the world! Tourism and travel bridge people, time, and cultures, leading to deeper understanding.

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom (twice), Greece, and Portugal combined. In reference to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River. Saudi Arabia is more than 3 times the size of the state of Texas.

Saudi Arabia shares land borders with seven countries: Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Across a 16 miles (25 kilometer) causeway in the Gulf lies the island kingdom of Bahrain.

With over 35 million inhabitants, Saudi Arabia has 13 provinces all united by the Arabic language, but each with unique dialects, traditions, cuisines, landscapes, and heritage.

One cannot help but be moved by the imposing contours and beauty of the seemingly endless, ever-changing, windswept Arabian dunes, the sand-washed ancient cities, and the sparkling waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Taif is different.

map of Saudi Arabia with several cities labeled and Taif highlighted

Continue reading »