Posted on August 12, 2002 in Washington Watch

At a time when the U.S.-Saudi relationship is being challenged and tested, a leader in the effort to build bridges between the United States and the Arab world has passed away. Suliman Saleh Olayan died on July 4 in the United States.

It is perhaps no coincidence that he should die on the day the United States celebrates its Independence Day. He was a proud citizen of Saudi Arabia, but, in many ways, the life of Suliman Olyayan was defined by his friendship with America. He was as committed to the endurance of the Saudi-US relationship as he was to maintaining his various personal and business ties – a result of more than 55 years of building companies and relationships with American partners and friends.

In all of these efforts, if one term definitely describes Suliman Olayan; it is statesman. He was not a professional diplomat, one who seeks politically defined national interests, but rather, he was a statesman, someone who understands, values, and acts to strengthen relationships that serve a greater good. Mr. Olayan understood politics and negotiations, his business legacy testifies to those achievements. More importantly, he could take a strategic view, looking at the long-term challenges and consequences of actions or inactions. He was particularly skilled at seeing the overall implications of issues and projects that were interesting to him, maintaining, at the same time, a shrewd and informed grasp of the details that other leaders might overlook or ignore. This linking of global vision and detailed understanding was a hallmark of his leadership.

He valued the relationship with the United States for pragmatic reasons – it was the biggest and best friend to Saudi Arabia for more than 50 years. American companies were for many years the preferred partners for doing business in the Kingdom and overseas. He believed that the commercial ties between Saudi and American businesses: partnerships, joint ventures, agency agreements, investments and the rest built reliable and continuing ties.

More importantly, Mr. Olayan believed that the common values between Saudis and Americans, exemplified by the tens of thousands of Saudis who had their education in the States, provided a bond of friendship and commonality that would survive changes in presidents, kings, foreign policy disagreements, and domestic politics.

Now that relationship is in turmoil. It has been revealed that neo-conservative ideologues associated with the Pentagon have been trying to subvert the historic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. And pro-Israel activists in Congress have joined them in this effort. There are tensions and challenges that go beyond policy differences. There is a mistrust that is being fed, in fact, on both sides by people who do not value the mutual benefits that have been part of the Saudi-U.S. landscape over the years. These political extremists in the Kingdom and the U.S. discount the very values and achievements that have been a central hallmark of how Americans and Saudis interacted in business, government, education, and security affairs.

Mr. Olayan became very concerned in his later years with the inability of the United States to understand how its policies were eroding the goodwill and respect built up with generations of Saudis who were now leaders in the private and government sectors. His legacy as the chairman of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry is threatened by popular boycotts throughout the Arab world of anything American. There were times when he felt that the gulf between the United States and the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, would continue to widen and overwhelm what had been built since the 1930s.

Yet he continued to believe in the essential validity of the ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and recognized that major initiatives were required to salvage the mutual benefits that are the backbone of this relationship. And as a private citizen in the Kingdom and a reticent global businessman, he was welcomed in any venue to speak his thoughts on a variety of issues, from policy and economics to the environment and ethics.

Suliman Olayan operated on a world stage and achieved extraordinary success. But even while his vision and reach were global, he never lost sight of the importance of the individual players on that stage. And his attention to detail was legendary.

Early in my career I was fortunate to have met Mr. Olayan. He followed my advocacy work in the United States. He encouraged, counseled and supported me. And I am proud to say that he called me his friend. True to his attention to detail, he focused closely on what I did.

I will never forget a call he made to me in 1984. I had just returned from the Democratic Convention where I had the honor to deliver a speech nominating Jesse Jackson for President. Being the first Arab American to have spoken at a major party national convention, I was aware of the importance of that moment for my community. I had not realized, however, how important it would be for Arabs outside the United States, until Suliman Olayan called. He began by reciting the opening lines of my speech, which he had committed to memory. He had watched it on television and told me how proud he had been.

Later when I founded the Arab American Institute to build on the gains Arab Americans had made in 1984, he encouraged me. But he was also quite stern in his counsel. I remember that as I discussed with him our goals, he wrote them down and offered some valuable advice. If you are to succeed, he noted, you should not deviate from your plan and your target goals. Each year, on or about the anniversary of the Institute’s founding, he would call and take me through the Institute’s goals to measure our accomplishments and focus.

He both admired and was fascinated by the U.S. political process, and he understood its importance. Before the 1988 election he had so many questions. He wanted to understand the details of the process: the caucuses, the delegates, the conventions, etc.

And then there was the call I received from Mr. Olayan in 1989, before the New York City mayoral election. He was in Hong Kong, but wanted to know the percentages of the African American vote in New York and how it had been affected by Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign.

He asked questions like that and paid attention to that kind of detail until he became too ill to call. Such was his thirst for information, his capacity for knowledge and his attention to detail and friendship.

When one writes in memory of a friend, it is natural to make them appear larger than life: extolling their virtues, minimizing their weaknesses, appreciating their contributions, and honoring them. Yet sometimes even that effort doesn’t quite tell the whole story, for the truth about Suliman Olayan is that he was truly larger than life and his imprint on so many of us cannot be underestimated.

His legacy and his vision will be missed by those of us who called him friend and looked to him for his courteous advice and unbending commitment to those causes that he cared so much about. His qualities as a community leader and businessman will continue to inspire those who know the story about the orphan boy from Unayzah who became a master of enterprise and investment. We will miss the continuous faith that inspired him and kept his life on a path filled with good deeds, a wonderful family, and the respect of his country and his colleagues worldwide. Yes, Suliman Olayan was a statesman, and he was a friend. And our lives are better because we knew him.

There is an important lesson in his life that should not be forgotten. What enemies of the U.S.-Saudi relationship fail to recognize its human dimensions. At the end of the day what makes any relationship important are the people who are involved in it. In the case of this particular relationship, it is not about oil or geo-politics, it is, in fact about real people and the relationships that they have built together that have served both countries and both peoples.

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