US ambassador in Saudi Arabia James C. O
Bilal Qabalan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia, James C. Oberwetter.
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Dateline NBC
updated 6/23/2005 1:58:11 PM ET 2005-06-23T17:58:11

James Oberwetter was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 8, 2004. At the time of his nomination, he was senior vice president for governmental and public affairs for Hunt Oil, an independent exploration and production company in Dallas, Texas. The nomination initially ignited opposition from some Democrats who criticized the former oil lobbyist for his lack of diplomatic experience. As ambassador, Oberwetter has made Saudi-U.S. cooperation in the war on terrorism a top priority and has vowed to engage the Saudis in areas where "differences of approach" exist. Read his complete interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw below:

Tom Brokaw: Mr. Ambassador, give us an overall assessment about how well Saudi Arabia is doing with terrorism, within its own borders.

Ambassador James Oberwetter: Well, beginning in May of ‘03, the Saudis were hit, and hit hard by al-Qaida. A number of housing compounds here in Riyadh were attacked. At that point, I think the leadership of this country woke up to the threat facing them from al-Qaida. And since that time, they've been working very hard on the threat, and having very good success, I might add.

Brokaw: You've just returned from the United States, and when you're back home in Texas, do people have a full appreciation that Saudi Arabia has been hit, at least six times in major attacks, since 2003?

Oberwetter: I think they're getting there. They're beginning to understand that this is something that has affected not only the United States and not only Afghanistan and other places in the world, but also Saudi Arabia. And at first, of course, I think they were reluctant to believe that.

Brokaw: The crown prince has said that we are eliminating the threat of terrorism. And they have been very responsive to acts of violence. But [there is] continuing concern about the role of clerics in this country who continue to preach hatred, people who are encouraging young Saudis to go across the border and join jihad.

Oberwetter: Well, let’s take that really as a two part question. First let’s talk about the success that they are having. They established a list of 19 members of al-Qaida that they wanted to take care of. And they're down to zero on the first list. They established a second list of 26, and they're down to only two or three. This is an enviable success ratio at going after really bad people. And they've had great success at it. On the second part, that dealing with the long term nature of the problem posed by al-Qaida in the country, the crown prince and others in government are working with the religious establishment here on efforts to remove the violence and the hate and intolerance from not only from some of the religious activities but also from the schools. And I know that that’s true because I have seen that with my own eyes in a city south of Riyadh.

Brokaw: But are they aggressive enough? Just recently on NBC News, Lisa Myers reported on two prominent clerics from here who were openly suggesting to some of the young charges that they have responsibility for that they go across the line, into Iraq, and join jihad against the United States.

Oberwetter: Well they have a long way to go in the country, but they're beginning to deal with the problem. Let me say this, they are two years into dealing with the problem, and they, as I’ve said before, have had some good success. There were a number of clerics late last year who issued what amounted to a call for jihad. But in ways that the government uses here, a number of those calls were withdrawn. And in fact, several of those who issued that call were detained.

Brokaw: Any number of analysts believe that among the young members of Islam, there will always be a kind of unrequited rage because of the economic and political conditions that exist throughout the Islamic world but especially in Saudi Arabia, where they have not been doing enough to create job opportunities and education to give people a hope for the future.

Oberwetter: There are reforms that are under way here in Saudi Arabia. Those are not very well-reported in the U.S. But whether its transactions that have to do with financial institutions, or whether its on judicial reform, or even this fledging election process that they've begun with respect to municipal elections, changes are under way here, but at a pace that those of us, I think, from the United States, find to be very slow. It’s true, too, that there are large numbers of young people who are unemployed or underemployed. And the government here has to do a better job of creating the opportunities through technical schools and training or what amount to be community colleges to help these young people get into the job market.

Brokaw: Your friend the President of the United States in his inauguration said that one of his personal commitments during the four years he would serve his second term was to spread democracy around the world. Can you ever imagine the royal family giving up control of this country, and allowing the people here to determine their own destiny?

Oberwetter: Well, one of the things the president said in the State of the Union was he was looking for the people who are in the leadership of this country to enlarge the public stage, the opportunity for young people and others to participate in a public process here. Because, you know, the word democracy and monarchy have a very hard time going together, frankly. And so I think what you'll see is over time, the extension of public space, more people coming into it through elections at various levels. And at some point, I would guess, in the not too distant future, the participation of women in that process.

Brokaw: How many people in this country talk to you the United States and its relationship with Israel, and has that changed to any degree since there seems to be some hope now of moving that process forward, at least a little bit?

Oberwetter: I think that there are encouraging signs. There's a new leader of the Palestinians. And that is a very encouraging sign. The Israelis have said that they're going to begin their withdrawal very soon, and that is positive. And then, when you look at the situation in Lebanon, it looks like votes will be occurring in Lebanon before the end of this year. That is positive. And as the president pursues the activities in Iraq, that too seems to be positive. Only recently the new government was established there. So over time, it looks to me like there are some very good things happening in the region.

Brokaw: That’s an American point of view, but do the Saudis share that point of view when they talk to you about the relationship that the United States has with Israel?

Oberwetter: Well, most of the time we spend talking about the relationship with the United States and the Saudis, rather than my talking to them about our relationship with Israel.

Brokaw: They don’t volunteer it when you go to social occasions?

Oberwetter: Almost every time. There's about a third of the conversation where they're knocking the U.S. policy, and there's about a third of the conversation where it’s introductory in nature, and everyone's having a good time. And I enjoy the last third, when the Saudis are talking to each other about the problems that they have in this country that need to be fixed that Israel doesn’t relate to at all. So it’s an interesting combination frankly.

Brokaw: How nervous are they about the insurgency in Iraq spilling over into their country?

Oberwetter: Well they have a long border with Iraq. So there is a heightened sense of anxiety. They do a good job of protecting the border on the southern side, but they've very anxious for the new Iraqi government to begin to put troops along the border on the Iraqi side, to keep people from coming back towards Saudi Arabia. So they're paying attention to that, and uh, they care about that very much.

Brokaw: The whole essence of the Saudi royal family, and Saudi Arabia, in religious sense is that it’s the custodian of the two mosques. A fundamental tenet of Islam is the separate place of men and women. Can they bring those two roles together, can they bring the kinds of reform that may be necessary to take them into the modern world, but at the same time, be faithful to this religion and the role of the royal family in maintaining the place of the two great mosques?

Oberwetter: Well I think over time, you will see changes occur in Saudi Arabia. But it will happen at a pace where the people are comfortable with the change. And you've touched on one of the reasons why this country is important for more than any kind of economic or commercial reasons -- reasons of oil or any of that – it’s because it is the seat of the Islamic religion. And that is a religion that now has 1.2 billion people around the world as its adherents. So this is a very important place, and they will make changes, but they tell us, and it seems to be, that they are making them at a pace where they do not outrun their public.

Brokaw: You come from the oil business. Can the United States ever really have leverage with Saudi Arabia as long we are hooked up to its oil as completely as we are?

Oberwetter: Well, you know, the world is hooked up to oil. And it’s very close to being in balance now between supply and demand, so what we need to do, as a country, is come up with an energy plan that will help us move forward. The president has put one of those forward - he did several years ago - and as of today, we still don’t have a U.S. energy plan. So we need to deal with the problems in the United States with our own energy plan. And then around the world, we need to do what we can to encourage additional exploration. Because the demands are great from China and from India and from a variety of other countries that are moving into free market economies. Demand is going up, and we need to keep pushing, looking for supplies.

Brokaw: Do you tell the Saudi friends that you have here, 'if you guys don’t start to give us a break we're going to find alternative sources of energy? We're going to find another way to run our country?'

Oberwetter: I've got to tell you that the Saudis in the oil business here are very smart. And they know that at high prices it brings on alternative energy supplies. And so they do watch that. But going back to what I said a minute ago, if demand is exceeding supply, it really doesn’t matter. What you need is additional supplies and conservation wherever you can have it around the world, including the United States. With those things, then I think we'll be set for the years out. But no, I don’t give them a lecture when supply and demand seem to be doing all the talking.

Brokaw: Mr. Ambassador, for all the successes that the Saudi government is having against acts of violence in this country, still, senior American intelligence officials believe that Saudi Arabia remains the repository for so much of the Islamic rage against the west. Can you foresee a time in our lifetime when that will be wiped out?

Oberwetter: Yes I can and I’ll tell you why. Because the crown prince and others in leadership positions in this kingdom have indicated that the struggle that they have is not a struggle that will be over this year, or next year. It’s a struggle, the crown prince says, that could last 10 years, or 20 years or 30 years. But they are committed to reducing the violence and the hate language which propels some of this violence that we see in the world today. They've made that commitment;

I see that by working with them, there are ways we'll be able to assist. Maybe we can shorten that time period up.

Brokaw: And personally, do you and your wife feel that you have freedom to travel around this country, without the constant threat that terrorists may bring to your wellbeing?

Oberwetter: Well, we traveled around the country. This year in particular we started moving around the country. We do travel with a security detail, and that’s a wise course of action right now. The government here wants to keep us safe, we want to stay safe. And so for all of those who are interested in our welfare here, we feel safe, we feel secure, but we're on guard, like most Americans and westerners need to be these days.

Brokaw: And your friends in Texas, when they say, 'well Mr. Ambassador, I'd like to come see you in Saudi Arabia, but I don’t know, that seems like a dangerous place.' How do you respond?

Oberwetter: Well, we do get some of that. But some of our friends have come to call, and others are planning to come. So at the moment, we're flying warning flags our on State Department warning list, which warns Americans away from here. We're looking forward to the day - I can’t predict it yet - but we're looking forward to the day when we can take that warning flag down a notch or two and more Americans will be able to come. The good news is that Saudis now have started traveling back to the US. A large business delegation is on its way during the month of May. At the visit, between the crown prince and the president, not long ago, the president indicated that he is for student visas and for medical visas and for business visas being issued in different ways. And these too, will encourage some cross-cultural exchanges which we need to have and commercial changes too.

Brokaw: Do Saudis ever apologize to you for the fact that 15 of the hijackers came from this country who made the attack on 9/11 on the United States?

Oberwetter: Well the Saudis that I deal with are appalled by what happened during 9/11. In fact, many of them were in a state of denial after 9/11, that that could possibly have happened, that there would be 15 of 19 from the kingdom. And so there is a deep remorse on the part of the Saudis and great concern. But they also point out that in the 90s, well before 9/11 occurred, they withdrew the citizenship of Osama bin Laden and basically threw him out of the country. And since that time, they've done what they can to be of assistance, and are helping, in helping us to try and find him. So what I find is that first, they were appalled, and second, they took away his citizenship, and now they would like to see him brought to justice.

Brokaw: Do you ever hear his name raised by anyone in any fashion?

Oberwetter: Rarely do I hear it raised.

Brokaw: He still has a very prominent family here.

Oberwetter: He does have a very prominent family here and they live in the western area of the kingdom. And from time to time, I run into members of that family. And I run into members of the company they represent.

Brokaw: Is it awkward?

Oberwetter: It is awkward a little bit. But I’ll say this for the members of the family. They've been willing to step forward and to say hello, to come by various events that we've had. And to let me know by their presence, I think, some solidarity with us.

Brokaw: The Saudis that we've been talking to insist that they're able to do this on their own. As you assess their efforts, what is the area they need to improve in, or they could use some additional help from us that they may not be asking for?

Oberwetter: There’s been dramatic improvement by the Saudi security forces in just the year and a half that I’ve been here. It’s turned into law enforcement of a different kind. They were not used to chasing terrorists when this started,and in fact, they lost -- often they would lose more men in an assault than the terrorists would. So they've been on a sharp learning curve and they've greatly improved their tactics. The real question now that faces this country is how they deal with production of these individuals. Where are they coming from, what are the tactics that will lead them to reduce their numbers, what are the processes that they can put in place that will help to eliminate the number of young people being recruited by al-Qaida? There are a number of steps they are taking. Some of it is like rehabilitation, where they will put clerics with individuals who have terrorist tendencies, or who may have been arrested in some of these raids. And so they're working with them, in terms of rehabilitation, pointing out where their views deviate from religion, and so there are a number of ways that they're working on the problem.

Brokaw: In the year and a half that you've been here, have you seen them move well beyond denial and illusion about where some of these terrorists come from, which in fact, is home grown?

Oberwetter: Yeah. Absolutely. And no question about it. I think from the fact that they have held this national, international counter-terrorist conference, which was very successful [with] 50 countries, 10 international organizations. Laying out some specific areas where they needed to deal with terrorism. They've come a long way. And I can see it in just the relatively short time that I’ve been here.

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