This week, I joined a small delegation of American Jews flying on the official Saudi Arabian airline to Riyadh. With us, we brought a Torah (likely one of the first transported on a Saudi plane) and a healthy dose of curiosity, fully aware that we were traveling to a country with a long history of hostility toward Judaism and Israel. Nor were we naïve to the present-day controversies surrounding the country.
Our visit to Saudi Arabia was hosted by an NGO committed to interfaith dialogue and to combatting Islamic extremism. The goal of the trip, as expressed by our hosts: “We need to learn about you, and you need to learn about us.”
And the learning began during the very first moments of our trip when a flight attendant recited an Islamic traveler’s prayer over the plane’s public address system — a prayer with striking resemblance to our own Tefilat Haderech.
The 13-person delegation from the United States, which included six senior UJA-Federation leaders, reflected the political and religious diversity of our own Jewish community. So the learning happened on the intra-Jewish level, too, with a female Reform rabbi from the Upper East Side and an Orthodox male rabbi from the Upper West Side meeting for the very first time. (Sometimes you just need to go to Saudi Arabia…)
Throughout the trip, I had the sense of living history — with our daily minyan in a hotel originally designed as a Saudi royal palace, and freshly-prepared kosher food (and two mashgiachs!) flown in from the United Arab Emirates by our hosts.
To understand why a trip like this matters, simply consider the demographics: an estimated 1.8 billion people globally identify as Muslim (24% of the world’s population) — as compared to roughly 15 million Jews (.2% of the world). And we saw a vivid illustration of the point while visiting the National Museum in Riyadh, a model of the Great Mosque of Mecca, currently being renovated to accommodate three million worshippers at once.
Today, Saudi Arabia is pursuing “Vision 2030,” an extraordinarily ambitious plan, aimed at modernizing socially and economically by promoting Islamic centrism, women’s rights, and diversification from oil. Trillions of dollars are being spent on massive infrastructure projects taking place all across the country at once.
The societal shifts are also dramatic. School curriculums have been changed to promote Islamic centrism and tolerance, particularly notable in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 years old. The religious police have been significantly curtailed, and women can walk unaccompanied and without wearing hijab. The state is also spending billions of dollars annually to combat Islamic extremism — an enormous area of concern shared by Israel and the West.
One of the highlights of the trip was a meeting we had with Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, a former Minister of Justice, who now heads the Muslim World League — a state-funded NGO with 1,500 employees headquartered in Mecca. Dr. Al-Issa spoke about his trip to Auschwitz in 2020, where he denounced antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
He also talked about the Charter of Makkah, a framework developed by the Muslim World League with 30 principles promoting the values of coexistence between all religions and condemning extremism. The first principle reads: “All people, regardless of their different ethnicities, races, and nationalities, are equal under God.”
Other principles address women’s rights, climate change, and poverty and hunger — it felt like something we would have written ourselves. Which made it even more meaningful that, since its adoption in 2019, more than 1,200 Islamic scholars, Imams, and leaders from 139 countries have endorsed it.
As is often the case on these kinds of trips, the casual human interactions are the most moving. I’ll never forget a conversation I witnessed between one of our trip photographers, Abdullah, and a rabbi from our group. Abdullah told the rabbi that he’d never spoken to a Jew and asked if it was okay to ask questions about our religion.
What followed was amazing. They discussed the similarities and differences between Islam and Judaism, including Hallal and Kashrut. Adorably, Abdullah discovered that both Jews and Muslims love shawarma and he and the rabbi debated favorite toppingsboth agreeing French fries and pickles are the best! Far more significant, Abdullah’s sense of the Jewish people is forever changed.
Saudi normalization with Israel and the broader Jewish world is not inevitable — and what can begin to open can also be shut down. But it’s hard not to be excited about the extraordinary potential that exists to fundamentally transform the Middle East and the world.
On my last day in Saudi Arabia, we traveled to AlUla, home to the ancient city of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. Thousands of years ago, Hegra was one of the crossroads of civilization. There we recited mincha, our Jewish afternoon prayer, as the Muslim tour guides and Saudi Arabian officials looked on. We sensed no hostility, only curiosity and respect.
Hegra is also the birthplace of today’s semitic languages; there are thousands of inscriptions etched into the rocks and burial tombs. Our group looked with wonder at multiple etchings that seemed to spell out Shalom or Salaam.
Or maybe some combination of both.