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Ladies' Tea Boils Over as Saudis Rail at U.S.

March 27, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The invitation one afternoon this week was for a ladies' tea -- a social event at the home of the U.S. ambassador's wife, Ann Jordan.

Courteous behavior was called for, even if a war between Americans and Arabs was unfolding a mere 300 miles away in Iraq.

Tea was served. Polite introductions and pleasantries were shared. Children were inquired about. A platter of smoked salmon finger sandwiches got passed around.

That's when the gloves came off.

Fawziya Abu Khaled, a poet and academic, put down her teacup and looked at the Americans with defiance, her voice almost shaking with determination and quiet fury.

It had been hard, she said, to accept an invitation to come to the U.S. ambassador's residence -- the lair of the enemy, really -- at a time when the U.S. is waging war against an Arab state.

Most of her friends, she said, had politely declined Jordan's invitation. The few who came, she said, did so because the Americans needed to hear what they had to say. The other Saudi women nodded in agreement. Jordan looked vaguely alarmed.

"This war is making people pro-Saddam, because it's not fair that you come from outside and remove a president, even if he is a dictator," she declared. "You thought the Iraqis would join you and fight for their freedom, but people instead of fighting for their freedom are standing behind him. And this isn't what anyone wanted to see!"

The scene illustrated that passions run high, even in intimate settings such as a tea party among the social elite in a country that is one of America's closest friends in the region.

Among the Americans present were Jordan, all smiling Texas hospitality; Margaret Scobie, the imposing deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia; two female press attaches; an American business consultant long married to a Saudi in this capital city; and a handful of American journalists.

The Saudis included three university professors, two writers and the director of a medical charity organization. The women arrived shrouded in black, but once inside, they checked their capes and veils at the door and strode to the living room in workout suits, chic slacks and silk blouses.

Hend al Khuthail, professor of higher education studies at King Saud University, spoke up next, saying she had seen a picture on the television news of an American father crying because his son had been killed while fighting in Iraq.

"Everybody in his mind has the picture of this father crying and complaining and saying to [President] Bush, 'You took away my only son!' We just can't [stand to] see that," she said.

"I know what the Iraqi administration has done. But now from a human point of view ... we are with [Hussein]. It turned the clock on his side! I tell you, it's not only we're confused. We don't sleep. Our hearts are broken. We don't even enjoy the food we're eating. When we saw this father, even though we are all Saudis, we started to cry!"

The questions continued: Why was the American media so dominated by pro-Israel views? Why hadn't the Bush administration made a serious effort at peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians before launching war in Iraq? Didn't the Americans realize there were no floods of Iraqi refugees because the Iraqis were staying home to defend their homeland?

"Now that war has started, we have to think of what will happen after. Killing Saddam will not solve the problem," said Hatoon Ajwad al Fassi, a professor of ancient history at a Riyadh university. "You will not have a peaceful land yielding to you and taking you in their arms. There will be lots of revenges, lots of instability."

At this point, Laura Collins, an American who is rearing her children in Saudi Arabia and helping Saudi women start businesses through the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, spoke up.

"I'm not a warmonger. I certainly don't like war -- nobody likes war. But I agree with the United States' intentions," she said. "I think they've got their heart in the right place. Since Sept. 11, if something poses a threat, the U.S. really needs to go after it and deal with the threat."

In mentioning Sept. 11, Collins unearthed a sore point in the complex relations between the two nations, whose decades-long alliance has been tested in part by the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi natives, as is Osama bin Laden.

The temperature across the tea table instantly fell about 15 degrees.

"Saddam Hussein is a bad man," Collins said. "He's killed lots and lots of Muslims, he was the only Muslim attacking Kuwait and Iran, he threw bombs at Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he used chemical weapons on his own people.

"Really, how many people need to die before you say this has got to stop?"

Collins, who regularly socializes and does business with these women, said later that "halfway through my little talk, I had an out-of-body experience."

She said she wondered if she had really said these things, and whether any of these women would talk to her again.

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