Nearly two decades after the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers – is undergoing sweeping economic, social, cultural and religious reforms.

Having had a front-row seat for some of the tectonic changes going on in the Kingdom, and two private meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely referred to by his initials MBS), I am encouraged by the scale and breadth of change I am seeing.

Let me be clear: much more is needed.

But it’s both important and fair to note that the Saudi Arabia of 2020 has come a long way since the days of 9/11.

In November of 2018, the crown prince invited me to bring the first-ever delegation of Evangelical Christian leaders to visit him and his inner circle. We had a two-hour meeting with MBS in the royal palace in Riyadh and spent several days in extended talks with senior Saudi officials where we were able to ask any and every question we wanted.

One year ago this week, I led a second delegation of Evangelical Christian leaders to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a follow-up visit requested personally by MBS.

This time we went to Jeddah, the “summer palace” of the Saudi royals and government.

While we met with many senior Saudi officials, the focus of the trip was another two-hour meeting with MBS and four of his closest advisors.

During that meeting, we discussed the Kingdom’s sweeping reforms and encouraging battles against terrorism and violent extremism. We also discussed MBS’s Vision 2030 plan, matters of religious freedom, human rights, Iran, Israel and the peace process.

The visit was organized by the kingdom’s new ambassador to the United States, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, as well as her immediate predecessor, HRH Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Crown Prince MBS speaking with delegation host Joel C. Rosenberg, his wife Lynn, and Amb. Ken Blackwell, who now serves on the board of Near East Media which runs All Arab News. (Photo credit: All Arab News)

At the crown prince’s insistence, we flew on one of his private jets one day to visit the ancient Nabatean city of Al-Ula.

On another day, we flew on the royal jet to visit the site of the $500-billion region of Saudi’s future, NEOM, both likely to draw an enormous flow of tourists once the COVID crisis clears up and development accelerates on both projects.

Immediately following our visit, our group issued this joint statement:

Rosenberg about to board one of MBS’ planes. (Photo credit: All Arab News)

“We are grateful for the hospitality of our hosts, His Majesty the King and His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. As in all of our interactions with the Kingdom and religious leaders of this nation, our focus has principally been the future of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“While it may surprise some that we would choose the week of ‪September 11‬ to visit the Kingdom, we actually feel there is no more appropriate time to focus on where the Kingdom must go, can go, and where we believe it is going. In fact, our visit here on this profoundly important week is in defiance of those that aim to derail reform in the Kingdom through an embrace of hate and fear rather than courage and moderation.

Participating in the delegation’s two-hour meeting in Jeddah with the crown prince were (left to right) Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Reema bint Bandar al Saud; HRH Khalid bin Salman, the vice defense minister; H.E. Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League; and H.E. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister. (Photo credit: All Arab News)

“We are also grateful to have deepening relationships in the Kingdom where trust is invaluable and where change is a topic of daily conversation.  This increasing trust has afforded us the opportunity to talk openly, if sometimes privately, about what we believe must change in the Kingdom even as we celebrate the Kingdom’s progress in so many other areas.  That is particularly evidenced by the diversification of its economy, tourism, the groundbreaking work of the recent Charter of Mecca and the introduction of various forms of openness and modernization, especially as it relates to the rights of women. Our meetings were unhurried and our discussions were substantive.

The crown prince asked the Evangelical delegation to visit the ancient ruins of the Nabatean Kingdom in the region of Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. (Photo credit: All Arab News)

“Frankly, we’re delighted at the scope of the developments even as we look with expectation for more change.  We are also patient friends with realistic expectations that it will take time to reform what took years to create.”

As the head of the delegation, I added an additional statement:

“We were encouraged to see that two U.S. senators visited the Kingdom this week and met with the crown prince. But we were stunned to learn that these were the only two senators who have come to visit all year. Saudi Arabia is one of America’s most important strategic allies in the war against radical Islamist terrorism and in countering the rising Iranian threat. Yes, there are significant challenges in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But we urge more senators to come here, see the sweeping and positive reforms that the crown prince is making, and ask him candid questions directly rather than sniping at him from Washington.”

Having just launched ALL ARAB NEWS, my team and I plan to continue covering the fast-moving events in Saudi Arabia and the region of the region.

For now, it’s important that our readers understand at least one thing: Many more reforms are needed in these countries to provide the economic, legal, social, cultural and religious freedom that the Arab people deserve, and that foreign investors and tourists are right to expect. But I believe credit should be given where credit is due, and many of the reforms underway in Saudi Arabia are real, historic and encouraging.

The delegation was hosted for a working lunch by Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League, one of the most prominent Sunni clerics in the world. (Photo credit: All Arab News)
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