Reporter's Notebook: 'Karen of Arabia' Reaches Out to Saudis

In Saudi Arabia today, Karen Hughes went beyond her public diplomacy mission by gently questioning the Saudi ban on women drivers and criticizing the Saudis for connections to extremist literature found in some mosques in the United States.

"We are concerned that literature has been found in American mosques that has a message that is not tolerant and we hope many of you and people in Saudi Arabia will work with us to help deal with this issue," Hughes said during a roundtable with an all-male group of Saudi reporters.

"I hope you will also find room to respect people of different faith and different faith traditions."

Hughes had meetings with King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and Foreign Minister Saud – an unusually high-powered group of meetings for a visiting third-tier State Department official.

'Diplomacy Czar' Gets an Earful

A former White House counsel and close adviser to President Bush, Hughes was appointed in March to burnish the United States' image overseas, especially in the Muslim world.

Earlier in the day, Hughes faced a town hall meeting of 500 highly educated Saudi women who turned the tables on America's recently appointed public diplomacy czar. Hughes wanted to talk about America's image in the Arab world; the woman hammered her instead with question after question about the negative portrayal of Saudis in the U.S. media.

When Hughes' listening tour pulled up to the Dar Al-Hakmah women's college in Jeddah, the most immediate issue for the traveling press was whether we would be allowed in the auditorium. School officials wouldn't even let Hughes' male translator in because it would violate the strict segregation of the sexes. To the shock of embassy officials (including one who called it an "historic moment"), both the men and women in the traveling press corps were allowed inside. No filming permitted, however.

Inside the auditorium, Hughes conducted a town hall meeting with the 500 female students, all covered head-to-almost-toe with abayas. During the session, one student suggested the United States name a "minister of media" to deal with inaccuracies and bias in the news media. Hughes called it a "wonderful idea," and then launched into a defense of freedom of the press.

The students took issue with the portrayal of Saudi women as victims imprisoned in their own homes. "We are not oppressed," said one student. "We are all pretty happy."

Hughes said one reason for the negative American view of the Saudi treatment of women is the ban on women driving. As an American, she said, "driving is an important part of my freedom," adding, "I understand your culture is different."  

Hughes also raised the issue of political rights for women, saying, "We certainly hope and encourage that women will be able to perhaps not only vote but run for office."  

Ambition and Optimism

To the dismay of some school officials, I waded into the crowd as soon as the meeting was over and spent about 30 minutes talking to the women. They were eager to talk, almost all of them insisting that Americans are all wrong about Saudi Arabia and the role of Saudi women.

Soon, however, it became clear that these are highly ambitious women who, for the most part, are convinced their country is radically changing. Virtually all of them wore fashionable Western clothing visible under their abayas.

"Besides driving, name one way we don't have equal rights," one student demanded.

"Can you travel without permission of a male relative?" I asked.

"No. But we still travel ..."

"Do your brothers need permission?"

"No! But, of course they tell their parents where they are going."

"Can you vote?" I asked.

"No. But we've only had one election so far. And I think I read that women and blacks in America weren't able to vote for a long time."

One student told me she wants to be an ambassador.

"Does Saudi Arabia have any women ambassadors, anywhere in the world?" I asked.


But she is convinced that is changing. She said there are nine Saudi women in the foreign ministry who are on track to become ambassadors.

As I was taken out of the auditorium, I asked several students for their contact information. Their e-mail addresses contained phrases like "sweeteyes," "cuteygirl85," "black.rose" and so on – not what one might expect from ambitious women in such a conservative society.