•The Goal Of These Missions Have Been To Promote Economic Development, Trade And Education Exchanges
By Mayor Joy Cooper
SAUDIA ARABIA - As a Trustee of the US Conference of Mayors and former Chair of the Women’s’ Caucus, I was one of 8 mayors selected to go on their sixth mission to Saudi Arabia. I have heard from mayors whom had been on previous missions to the country that it was fascinating and very eye opening. The goal of the missions have been to promote economic development, trade and educational exchanges, best practices to address multiple issues and most importantly cultural understanding of the Country.
As one would imagine, there is a certain level of apprehension I had when asked to travel to Saudi Arabia. In my case, the question was not just about perceived security issues and the idea that the country was extremely closed particular to women, but how would Arab leaders accept me as an American Jewish Woman mayor? To say the least my family was not thrilled with the idea of me traveling to a country surrounded by turmoil but supported my decision to go on the mission.
My decision to go ended up being the very issue that gave me seconded thoughts. Based on the fact that I am a Woman Jewish Mayor. I could represent women’s values and strength in the United States and represent our progressive city. As a Trustee of the Conference it would be an opportunity to represent our national organization. It was not until I landed in Washington DC that staff informed me I would be honored to become the leader of the delegation for the USCM. The other Senior Mayor and Trustee, Past President Don Plusqueliic, was unable to attend.
Trip Advisory 1
The first step was to apply for Visa. My husband and I both wondered whether I would be granted a Visa since I am Jewish, but I also had an Israeli stamp on my passport. I am sure this process was easier for the delegation members since the process was directly handled by conference staff between the State Department and the Saudi Embassy. I filled out a six page application including my full background, my mother’s background and a certified release stating that I understood some laws were punishable by imprisonment and death. I sent off the passport to the USCM. When I received it back there was a full page in Arabic that was an exact duplication of my American passport and the following page in Arabic stamp.
Trip Advisory 2
The next challenge was clothing. Included in the list of dress code for women were; collarbone could not be exposed , arms covered from the forearm up, no tight fitting garments, no sheer material, pants or long skirt, no open shoes and stocking were require. These rules are very similar to conservative Jewish customs. We would not be required to cover our heads. The other challenge was the garments needed to be suitable for 80 degree temperatures.
It became daunting to find light long dresses in the middle of winter. I was lucky Marshalls had a few summer leftovers. While I was shopping, I had my first unusual encounter with two lovely women. I never asked, but knew they were either Jewish or Muslim due to their dress. I politely asked for their help putting together suitable outfits.
They both knew exactly where to go in the store for suitable tops and necessary scarfs. We had plenty of laughs and giggles. After we were done one the of the women asked me, “By the way what religion are you?” it took me by surprise at first but I immediately said “Jewish”. Surprised, she responded,” You are going against the wishes of your Rabbi? This was the first time I had been asked this question. I made it clear that in America we are open to all religions and at least my Rabbi and the Rabbis I have known would never tell me what I can or cannot do. I would soon find out that different people would react very differently to the idea of my going to Saudi Arabia. Some were opposed, some excited and others like my family just worried about security. I would soon find out that there were multiple misconceptions about the cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and America, both by Americans and in Saudis.
Travel Advisory 3 and 4
The next few weeks we would be given additional guidelines, our travel itineraries and a tentative schedule for our weeklong visit. We all met at JFK Airport and then traveled onto Saudi Airlines for the 11 hour flight. SA had amazing service. The plane had one unique feature. On the back of the plane was a designated prayer area. It was shielded by curtains and the men took turns doing their prayers. We touch down in Riyadh time and ready for anexciting journey.
Over the next few weeks I will share my journey with our readers. It is far too often that we makes decisions about other counties based on press reports surrounding crisis. I hope that my experiences will help broaden the understanding of the country and what our similarities and difference are.