‘Saudis, Americans make good friends’
By Habib Shaikh
JEDDAH – Ignorance is the root of all problems. The more people know about
each other, the less there will be chances of misunderstandings leading to
Saudi Arabia has realized this very well, and the foremost example is the
interfaith dialogues initiated by King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy
So it does not come as a surprise if Saudis know more, for example, about
Americans than Americans know about Saudis.
“They know a lot more about us than we know about them,” is one of the
observations made by John K. Hartman who has served as a visiting
professor of journalism at King Saud University.
“Saudis tend to know much more about Americans than we know about them. In
fact, many of the professors at King Saud University got their graduate
degrees in Ohio – two at Ohio State University and one at Ohio
University,” Hartman said in online information on Saturday.
“They didn’t ask much about our personal lives, they didn’t ask much about
what life is like in the United States, but I think it’s because most of
them knew. They get a lot of their media from the US, so they’re more
familiar with our lifestyle,” he explained.
Hartman said that by contrast, Americans often exhibit little interest in
Saudi Arabia, and added that a column he wrote for Editor & Publisher on
his visit to Saudi Arabia got little notice, but a column he wrote on the
25th anniversary of USA Today got a massive response.
“It’s not that people are for or against Saudi Arabia; it’s just so far
away that people aren’t interested,” he said, and added, “Still, despite
major cultural differences, Americans have more in common with Saudis than
they think – and the countries would do well to try to learn more about
each other. I think, all things being equal, we should try to become
Hartman, 63, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University and a
resident of Bowling Green, Ohio, taught in two-week blocks at KSU with the
official title Al-Jazirah chair for international journalism sponsored by
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Jazirah newspaper (not to be confused with the
Al-Jazeera TV station).
He taught news reporting and public relations to KSU students, led a
discussion on the changing media environment in the Middle East, gave a
keynote address titled ‘The End of the Print Newspaper’ to a university
audience, and spoke to the Al-Jazirah staff on investigative reporting.
“The people were very receptive, the students were very receptive, the
journalists were very receptive,” he said.
The fact that many of the students spoke English only made them more
responsive. He said he could tell which ones knew English by how long it
took them to laugh after he told a joke.
“It was like a wave going through the audience,” said Hartman.
His visit also gave Hartman an up-close look at the Saudi media. He said
the newspapers place much more emphasis on photos of people – rather than
of events – and are much different in appearance than US papers. “I
learned that the Saudis care deeply about journalism and want to learn how
to do it better,” he said.
About Dr. Abdullah Al-Othman, rector of KSU, he said he was intent upon
turning King Saud University into a world class university and increasing
its graduate programs to make up 40 percent of the student body.
He said KSU intends to be the equivalent of Ohio State University by 2020
and the equivalent of Harvard by 2040. ‘“Our initials will also stand for
Knowledge Society University,’ he (Al-Othman) said in perfect English,”
“We talked about research projects of common interest, particularly those
regarding youth and young adults (one of my newspaper research themes). He
expressed concern about the way US citizens perceive his country and
suggested research projects in that realm. He asked my views and I said I
thought Obama had a more magnanimous view of the rest of the world than
(then President) Bush and his opponents. I added that Obama appears to
inspire the younger generation in much the same way as John F. Kennedy
affected my generation. I said Kennedy inspired me to want to go into
public service and to want to make the world a better place,” said
Hartman, and added that he saw his visit to the KSU as fulfilling
Hartman also conducted a seminar on the effects of the Internet on the
newspaper business at Al-Jazirah headquarters.
“Some Saudis are not crazy about us. In one restroom I saw the ‘USA’
scratched out on a hand drier. They are concerned about the way Muslims
are often portrayed as villains in US movies and media; that women are
often portrayed as sex objects in Western media, which runs counter to
Muslim beliefs; and that some US citizens display a superior attitude
toward Saudis and other Arab people,” Hartman said.
“Yet my wife Kay and I could not have been treated better. Our hosts saw
to all our needs,” he said. “We learned that the Saudi people we met care
about the same things we do – their families, their children, their
professions, their religion and their society. Yet we Americans differ
greatly over the role of women in society and the limits placed on female
Nonetheless, we Americans have much more in common with the Saudis than we
have differences,” he added. – SG