As a child, I saw a world where women stayed at home, raising children, possibly teaching school. That world changed in the United States in the late 1960’s, when doors opened for women in education, the professions, arts, and business. This shift of culture and opportunity allowed me to earn a PhD, become a senior staff professional in the United States Senate, be appointed as a professor at the National War College and become the first woman to chair the Department of National Security Strategy.
Following our residence in Riyadh I am now on my fourth career now as the President of a private consulting firm. I also serve as Chair of the Democratic Party in our town in New Hampshire. I am delighted with my professional careers, and I do not see “retirement” in my senior years. My special joy is my role as grandmother to seven wonderful grandchildren and as an American “mamma mahram” to Saudi woman students attending college in the United States.
My husband was named Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2009 and we had the privilege of representing the United States to the Kingdom until 2013. This was my first time living in Riyadh, but my husband had been stationed in Dhahran, as a US Air Force fighter pilot during the Kuwait War. I felt no strong preconceptions of the Kingdom. I had a few Saudi military officers as students at the War College, but my only two previous overseas experiences were in Chile and Japan.
On our arrival in Riyadh and then to Jeddah, I felt immediately welcomed, warmed by ever generous Saudi hospitality. Riyadh and most of the major cities reminded me of the years we lived in the desert of Arizona, the sea shore off of Jeddah and Yanbu reminded me of my love for California, facing the sunset. I enjoyed every day we lived in the Kingdom, it was a constant source of fascination for me.
In the years we lived in the Kingdom, I would frequently hear my Saudi friends complain that the “Western press” did not understand their country, that there was so much misinformation about Saudi Arabia. I would suggest that it would be wonderful if the Kingdom ‘opened its doors” to tourism. In the past, tourists could not simply visit the country; there were no tourist visas, only special visas for hajj and umrah. At one point, we even talked about visas for mature visitors, special tour groups of senior citizens. But for the four years we lived in the Kingdom, nothing happened. I am delighted that this policy has changed.
There is so much to see and do, such welcoming families, that I know that both tourists and Saudis alike will benefit from tourism. It is true that Saudi society, culture, and traditions are unique in the world. The respect for family, the importance of tribe, the dominance of Islamic practice, set it apart from the global context. Appreciating the hard desert climate, the barren land, dramatic landscapes are also important components of the Saudi experience. I applaud the Saudi government for reaching out to the world and inviting them in. I hope tourists will read deeply about Saudi history, Islam, and regional culture. It will enrich the tourist’s visit.
The Saudi women I met were inspirational to me—full of energy, optimism, determination. I met women with a thirst for knowledge, career ambition and an acute political sophistication.
The Saudi women my age were often pioneers—they were the first to earn their doctorates, to become engineers, medical doctors, dentists, scientists. Often they told me of the support they received from their fathers to further their education, especially in the early years when many were sent to Egypt for school. They were all inspirational women. And their daughters! Their daughters are amazing. I have high hopes for them and the contribution they will make to their country.
As an American, of course, I come to this view from my own background. I see how much my own country has embraced the role of women in our political system. My home state of New Hampshire has had an all woman delegation to the United States Congress, two woman governors and women on the State courts. All of these women, from both of our political parties have enhanced the well being for our citizens. I have high hopes for the next generation of young women, both in the United States and in Saudi Arabia and they contribute to a better future for all.