In halting Hebrew, a young woman told Rabbi David Rosen last week her name, and that she would like to visit Israel.
But this was no everyday occurrence but “an electrifying and exciting” encounter between Rabbi Rosen and one of 60 or 70 young Saudi men and women in Riyadh.
The British-born, Jerusalem-based rabbi was part of a delegation of faith leaders, directors of the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, or KAICIID, invited by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.
The Vienna-based group was established by Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, eight years ago.
Rabbi Rosen said it had long been mooted that a KAICIID meeting would take place in Riyadh, “but for a long time that was clearly wishful thinking”.
But three months ago the meeting got the green light and the delegation — Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Rabbi Rosen as the sole representative of Judaism — were received by the King.
It was a 20 minute meeting which turned into an hour as King Salman laid out his hopes for the kingdom to change and improve its standing with the Western world.
He had, Rabbi Rosen said, “few expectations other than just being received in Riyadh, a historic event as a rabbi”. But he had thought the delegation would only deal with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal, so it came as something of a surprise to find they were due to meet the King.
“We had all heard rumours that the ‘real’ ruler of Saudi Arabia was Mohammed bin Salman [the 34-year-old would-be reformer Crown Prince, known as MBS], and that the King was old and not involved”, said Rabbi Rosen. [In fact the group did not meet MBS].“But while it is true that the King is old and he does tire, he gave every sign of his commitment to continuing interfaith dialogue and working with KAICIID.
“His narrative was that Saudi Arabia had once been an authentically open and tolerant Islamic society, but that political considerations had changed things. Now, he said, Saudi Arabia wanted to recapture that spirit of Islam, and that interfaith dialogue was fundamental to that — because there could not be peace between nations without peace between religions.”
#KAICIID Board of Directors, comprising senior representatives of the world’s major #religions, met in #Riyadh with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to present the work of the Centre: https://t.co/2VLKTjejY2 pic.twitter.com/xU174z5xps
— KAICIID ➡️ #InterreligiousDialogue (@KAICIID) February 20, 2020
Rabbi Rosen described the royal reception as “a truly revolutionary moment”, but said that “the most exciting thing” from his two-and-a-half day stay in Riyadh was an evening event for almost 70 young Saudi professionals, men and women, “all speaking excellent English”, who were graduates of a programme sponsored by the authorities designed to foster inter-faith understanding.
“I was really impressed with these young people”, Rabbi Rosen told the Jewish News. “They were doctors, lawyers, men and women, some women fully covered so you could only see their eyes, but not all. They were excited to meet us, particularly our two women directors representing the Buddhist and Hindu faiths”.
The young group spoke with passion of the changes in Saudi society. “They may seem trivial to us”, Rabbi Rosen said, “but things like women driving and not having to have male chaperones all the time are dramatic and radical for young Saudis”.
Rabbi Rosen, who is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, acknowledged that there would be those who criticise his presence as a “figleaf” for Saudi Arabia, seeking to provide damage limitation for policies many Western nations find hard to swallow.
But, he said: “I am not holier than the Pope. And I mean that literally. The Christians on our delegation have far more to lose by collaborating with Saudi Arabia than I do, because there are substantial Christian communities in the country. King Abdullah says Saudi has to change, and the Christians have decided that it is a worthwhile challenge. I have no right to make myself more virginal than them”. [There were a few Jews in Riyadh, he said, mainly business-people passing through on a temporary basis, but nothing like the full-time communities in Qatar or Dubai, the latter of which now has a chief rabbi].
He said that if Jews had insisted on the Vatican being “pure and cleansed of all antisemitism” before embarking on the process of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, there would never have been Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking document from the Catholic Church which changed its relations with the Jewish community.
Similarly, Rabbi Rosen suggested, faith leaders and Western nations had to take the Saudis at their word that serious changes would be made.
He is due to make his second visit to Riyadh at an interfaith event hosted by the Saudis before the autumn G20 summit.