By Alexander Woodman
On February 19th, 2020, a reception was held at the U.S. Consulate General in Dhahran. This momentous occasion commemorated the Anniversary of 244 years of US independence and the 75th anniversary of the historic meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, between the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the King of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz met to outline the future of the bilateral collaboration between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This first meeting between the U.S. President and Saudi King laid the foundation for the comprehensive diplomatic partnership the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared over the decades.
The bilateral ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are based on more than six decades of close friendship and cooperation. In the 21st century, the U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s second largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia is one of the United States’ largest trading partners in the Middle East.
Consul General Rachna Korhonen, the first woman to be appointed to the position of Consul since its establishment in Dhahran in 1944, welcomed the Deputy Governor of the Eastern Province, Khalid Al-Battal, and the Deputy Governor of Al-Khobar, Abdullah bin Ali Al-Seef, as their guests.
A.W. The U.S. Consulate in Dhahran opened in 1944; however, the first female Consul General was appointed six decades later. How does it feel to be that first female Consul member, and how did your assignment in the KSA challenge you? Can you discuss the most rewarding part of your service?
C.G.R.K. When I left Saudi Arabia the first time after serving at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, I really wanted to come back. I wanted to learn more about the Eastern Province and energy. It was not until I spoke with the Consul General who was here at the time, that I learned that the State Department was looking for the first woman for the position. I didn’t want the job because I wanted to be the first woman, I wanted the job so that I could learn about energy, Aramco, what’s happening in the Eastern Province and the connections between the United States and the Kingdom since 1933. I often thought about what was happening in the Eastern Province, as well as its value not only to Saudi Arabia but for the entire world, and then I got the benefit of being the first woman. It was a surprise. It was a lot of pressure. I am one of those people who tends to do well from pressure as it brings my mind to bear on what I need to get done.
I arrived in Dhahran in August 2017, shortly before the celebration of Eid al-Adha. As early as my initial arrival, I was lucky to meet amazing and hospitable people. I was delighted that Prince Saud bin Nayef, the Governor of the Eastern Province, welcomed my family into the Eastern Province. He encouraged us to feel at home, to become familiar with the Province, and for me to help my family settle in and enjoy our new surroundings. I have continued to meet as many people as I could on various occasions, and the Saudis have welcomed me into their homes and shared their food and traditions with my family and me.
A.W. As a diplomat and a well-accomplished woman, how would you define “women empowerment?” Can you also discuss your vision of the significance of women within their families and in society?
C.G.R.K. I appreciate the importance and significance of the concept of “women empowerment” and its political ramifications. However, I feel that instead of “empowerment,” perhaps “performance” is a better word to use here. Empowerment cannot be just “given” to a person; it is a process where women learn to gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make good choices. I have learned that lesson during my years of working tirelessly on projects I am given.
One cannot just ask for or expect empowerment. It cannot be taken from another person and given to another. One needs to show up, perform, do his/her best, and grab opportunities that present themselves. It is a “give and take” process. We must surround ourselves with people who want what is best for us, and then we can perform our best, and become empowered. I believe that empowerment comes with practice: some people are lucky and earn it very early in life; others may get it very late in life. Unfortunately, some may never get it at all.
I think that men have as much issue with empowerment as women do, we just don’t hear about it that often. I should emphasize that it did help to have amazing leadership in Riyadh and Washington, DC, who believed in me and trusted my decisions. I have learned that empowerment comes from the inside and also from the outside. It is achieved by commitment to our work, unconditional love, and support from the people who surround us in each of our endeavors.
A.W. Two of the major Saudi companies, Aramco and SABIC, are located in the Eastern Province. What opportunities does this create for Saudis and Americans interested in working at those companies?
C.G.R.K. The Eastern Province is the “Makkah” of the energy industry. If people want to learn about oil, gas, and chemicals, then this is the place where that can happen. In addition to Aramco, Sadara, and SABIC, many American companies, such as GE and Halliburton, are also here. All of these companies have clear reasons to be in the Eastern Province and invest their money, their workforce, and their ambition to succeed.
I do think that the Eastern Province is going to continue to grow. It will open up new opportunities for the gas and oil industry and many different types of entrepreneurship. With the companies already operating here and working with the well-established universities, the stage is already set for continued success.
I anticipate that many smaller Saudi companies will continue to open their businesses in the Eastern Province, as has happened in Silicon Valley. They will eventually become giants in their industries since the Saudi ecosystem offers many opportunities not only for large companies but also for smaller ones. This allows for the creation of jobs in the energy industry as well as supporting sectors. This is the heart of the economic engine in Saudi Arabia and will remain this way for the foreseeable future.
A.W. One of the central objectives of Vision 2030 is for Saudi Arabia to become a popular tourist destination. In this case, how can inter-culturalism and modernization affect the traditional values of Saudi Arabia? What is the significance of tradition in the 21st century?
C.G.R.K. There are several things to mention about tradition. First of all, Saudi Arabia has been open to tourists for decades. During the annual Hajj and Umrah, millions of tourists visit Saudi Arabia. I believe that the Saudis are experts in tourism and hospitality.
Secondly, there are many magnificent and stunning areas in Saudi Arabia that are not yet well-known to foreigners or even to Saudis. During my first assignment in Saudi Arabia from 2010-2013, I discovered and visited some ‘gems’ in the Kingdom. I had the opportunity to visit such places such as Farasan Island, Jazan, Al Ula, the Al-Wahbah crater (the biggest lava field in Saudi Arabia), Madain Saleh, and the Edge of the World in Riyadh, among others. I saw parts of Saudi Arabia that, unfortunately, many people have not yet discovered.
Saudi Arabia has beautiful and eye-opening scenery that must not be hidden from the world. As Vision 2030 enables projects on the West Coast as well as in other parts of the country, I anticipate that tourism will boom.
Regarding the issue of keeping the cultural identity and traditions of the country, it should be mentioned that the Saudis have already been traveling overseas for quite some time to places such as the U.K., Japan, China, all over Europe, and the U.S. When they return, I have not noticed that they have lost any of their cultural traditions and unique identity; even those who have been away for a longer period. I do not anticipate that Saudis will lose their culture or traditions because tourists visit their country. On the contrary, I anticipate that the world will see and appreciate Saudi culture and their traditions, and tourists will take some of these traditions home with them. Can you imagine Gahwa and dates everywhere? I can…
A.W. In one of your interviews, you said, “I always knew I wanted to come back. I love the culture. I loved my interaction with the Saudis.” What are some significant factors that led you to such warm relations with Saudi society? Do you think you will repeat the same line when you leave this time?
C.G.R.K. I am lucky enough to be invited to weddings and get to attend both the men’s side and the women’s side and during these times I have noticed something that touches my heart. What I have noticed on both sides of the weddings is that grandchildren really love their grandparents and you can see the connection. One of the things that Saudi grandchildren do with their grandmother or grandfather is they will go up to them, bow down, kiss their hand and forehead. This creates an affection and love between the generations that clearly reminds the younger generation to respect their elders. It reminds me of my parents and grandfather; and how much they taught me. I know that we should never forget to show those feelings of appreciation to our loved ones but to also respect our elder generation and continue to forge a strong bond with the next generation.
I also love the culture of meeting people and getting together on a regular basis to talk about everything. Saudis love talking about politics, the stock market, and even the fruits on sale in the market. Before the restrictions caused by COVID-19, we used to have diwaniyas, gatherings of people who discuss all types of issues, that I enjoyed and am now missing a great deal. Although we are now having virtual diwaniyas, I miss the process of meeting people and spending time with them. In Saudi culture, people can visit each other’s homes and are always welcome. That is probably one of the most important lessons I learned from the Saudis and I hope to bring that tradition home with me.
A.W. How did Saudi Arabia change you, and what do you take with you from this beautiful country? What would your final words be to the Saudi people?
C.G.R.K. Thank you for the love. Thank you for the hospitality. Thank you for the support. Thank you for accepting me. Thank you for making me smile. Thank you for the amazing food. Thank you for the conversation. Thank you for being you.