Oct. 14, 2005 -- -- In his first television interview since he took the throne, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told ABC News' Barbara Walters about his plans to expand women's rights in his country and his country's own struggles with terrorism and extremism.
Following is a transcript of the interview which aired on "20/20" and "Nightline."
BARBARA WALTERS: I understand that now that you are king, you prohibited your subjects from kissing your hand. Were you embarrassed to have your hand kissed?
KING ABDULLAH:I have tremendous distaste for such matters because I believe that one only bows before one's God, not before another human being.
WALTERS:When you visited President Bush this past April, there were photographs of you and the president holding hands. This is not a gesture common among American men. Did it have significance?
ABDULLAH:Yes. In our culture, holding hands is a sign of friendship and a sign of loyalty and you do it with people dear to you. And President Bush is a friend whose friendship I value and ... and treasure.
WALTERS:Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, is this something that has caused you great grief? Would you like to say anything to the American people about that?
ABDULLAH:Yes, of course it had, and we were shocked. It has had a negative impact on all Saudis because this is not who we are nor is it what our faith teaches us. We as Arabs are always loyal to our friends and we value such friendships.
WALTERS:Well, officially our two countries are friends and allies, but unofficially there seems to be some suspicion and even hatred. Why do you think this is?
ABDULLAH:Yes, the Saudi people have some disagreements with the United States, in particular when it comes to the issue of the Palestinian question, the war in Afghanistan and the war with Iraq, and I believe this may have influenced the opinion of the Saudi public towards the United States ... What we ask for is that justice and equity prevail among all of the ethnic groups in Iraq. We believe that all Iraq is one country in which all Iraqis live in peace and justice. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until today has not interfered in Iraq's affairs. We have not done so because we don't want to open ourselves up to charges or accusations that we are ... that we have a hand in the disintegration of ... of Iraq. We also have been accused in the past of having a hand in what happened in Iraq, in particular with regards to terrorism and the violence, and we are innocent of these charges. And we have remained neutral in spite of the injustices that we see currently going on.
WALTERS:Let's talk about Iran ... Iran has become more powerful as a result of the turmoil in Iraq. Do you see that as a concern for Saudi Arabia?
ABDULLAH:The questioner is often times more knowledgeable than the questionee.
WALTERS:(Laughs) So, you are not worried about Iran becoming more powerful?
ABDULLAH:Iran is a friendly country. Iran is a Muslim country. We hope that Iran will not become an obstacle to peace and security in Iraq. This is what we hope for and this is what we believe the Iraqi people hope for.
ABDULLAH:The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like other countries in the region, rejects the acquisition of nuclear weapons by anyone, especially nuclear weapons in the Middle East region. We hope that such weapons will be banned or eliminated from the region by every country in the region
WALTERS:President Bush has said that one of his goals is to spread democracy in your region. Is this realistic?
ABDULLAH:If you look at democracy in the United States, you will see that it took many, many, many years to develop.
WALTERS:A flash point for Westerners is that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. It seems to be symbolic of a women's lack of independence. Would you support allowing a woman to drive?
ABDULLAH:I believe strongly in the rights of women ... my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, my wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible.
WALTERS:But there are so many restrictions against women. Do you see this changing?
ABDULLAH:Yes, I believe we can. But it will require a little bit of time ... Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world, and I believe that with the passing of days in the future everything is possible.
WALTERS:Why do you think Saudi Arabia is becoming fertile ground for al Qaeda?
ABDULLAH:Madness. ... Madness and evil, it is the work of the devil. ... Such acts cannot be perpetrated by any individual who has a sense of decency or humanity or justice or faith.
WALTERS:Do you feel that you have eliminated the threat here in your own country?
WALTERS:You're still worried about it?
ABDULLAH:I have stated after the first terrorist attack that we will fight the terrorists and those who support them or condone their actions for 10, 20 or 30 years if we have to until we eliminate this scourge. I believe that the world must stand shoulder to shoulder with each other if we are to eliminate this evil from our midst.
WALTERS:Terrorism to some degree starts with extremism, and there are people who feel that the educational system here in Saudi Arabia has in the past contributed to extremism and hatred. When we were here three years ago, we found textbooks that called for the killing of Jews. What is being done to stop this ... extremist teaching?
ABDULLAH:I will not deny that such extremism existed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but such extremism exists in almost every country in the world. If you look at the United States and what people have said about Islam I ask myself why the focus is only on Saudi Arabia when it comes to such matters when we all should be fighting such extremist talk everywhere. Muslims are not bloodthirsty people. Islam is a religion of peace that forbids the killing of the innocent. Islam also accepts the Prophets, whether those prophets are Mohammed, God's peace and blessing be upon Him, or Moses or the other prophets of the Books.
WALTERS:In this country, however, you cannot practice a religion other than Islam publicly, although there are 5 million foreigners in this country.
ABDULLAH:Public worship is not allowed -- you are correct -- because Saudi Arabia, as you know, is the birthplace of Islam. To allow the construction of places of worship other than Islamic ones in Saudi Arabia it would be like asking the Vatican to build a mosque inside of it. However, people in Saudi Arabia are free to practice their faith in the privacy of their homes.
WALTERS:The Council of Foreign Relations reported last year, and I'm quoting, "Saudi Arabia continues massive spending on fundamentalist religious schools which export radical extremism that can lead to terrorism." Will you or can you stop the funding of these schools?
ABDULLAH:It doesn't seem logical. We are fighting terrorism and extremism in our midst. Why would we be funding it somewhere else? It is not logical or rational for us to be supporting it. We have also regulated our charities and we have closed offices around the world, and we have withdrawn support for institutions that we found to be extremist.
WALTERS:And changed your textbooks?
ABDULLAH:Yes, we have. ... We have toned them down.
WALTERS: Toned them down ... I want to talk about young people. Sixty percent of your people are under the age of 20 and they're reaching the age when they'll need jobs. There is already a good deal of unemployment. That can lead to discontent and some people feel it can lead to radicalism. What are you doing about that?
ABDULLAH: I would like to say first that the issue of unemployment in Saudi Arabia has improved greatly in recent years, and we have been able to reduce it substantially. We need to find approximately 100,000 jobs for those who are seeking jobs but cannot find them at this time.
WALTERS: Since this is the first interview that you are doing on television and the first for America, what would you most like my country to know about yours? What would your message be for America?
ABDULLAH:Yes, and the message is that the American people have been our friend for over 60 years. There was no conflict or problem or doubt that existed between us until the tragic events of a few years ago in New York City, which were perpetrated by a small and deviant group of individuals who have no respect for humanity or for the teachings of their faith. I also want to convey my greetings to President Bush and all Americans, young and old.