New US Consul General Todd Holmstrom to further strengthen ‘bridges of understanding’
The new US consul general, who arrived here on August 6, is a family man. Hailing from Michigan, Todd Holmstrom says he is blessed with “both a large extended family and also a good size nuclear family,” who arrived in the Kingdom nearly three weeks after he had settled in.
Previously posted in N’Djamena, Chad, where he worked as deputy chief of mission, Holmstrom already has experience working in an Arabic-speaking country. “Before I went to Chad I always thought of Chad as part of Francophone or French-speaking Africa, and then I went [and] realized it is really ‘Arabphone’ or part of the Arab world more than it is having any other one identity. It’s very diverse, but 34 percent of the people speak French, 86 percent of the people speak Arabic.”
During his time in Chad, Holmstrom worked closely together with the Saudi Embassy on a wide range of issues, from reducing poverty to conquering extremism and building bridges of understanding between religious groups. Perhaps, Saudi Arabia was a natural next post for him to go.
Saudi Arabia’s importance
One of the many things Holmstrom likes about the Kingdom is the importance given to religion. “Like a lot of rural areas, religion does play a large role in the communities I grew up in. My own family has a long religious history and it’s also something that has been part of my studies. I got my bachelor’s degree in history and religion has played a very important role throughout history in a lot of interesting ways.”
However, according to the new consul general, Saudi Arabia’s importance lies not only in the fact that it is the cradle of Islam.
“I think Saudi Arabia historically has played a very important role in the region, and Saudi Arabia is important on a lot of levels, from religion to culture to security issues and certainly for economic reasons as well. And for all those reasons Saudi Arabia has and will continue to play a very important role in the region and beyond.”
Holmstrom denies that the Kingdom is important to the US only because of its fossil fuels. “My own belief isn’t that it is all about the oil.” Among other things, he believes the two countries have “shared interests and goals in the region, from advancing Middle East peace to resolving the problem in Syria to beyond that. The oil is only one part of one part. It’s a subpart of the economic relationship, and the economic relationship is growing and becoming more diverse.”
Given the country’s importance, Holmstrom has always wanted to work in the Kingdom, and his first impressions are promising.
“I’m very impressed by the warm welcome I’ve received by Jeddawis here in Jeddah. I only very briefly visited Riyadh, but my sense is (this hospitality goes) beyond Jeddah, it’s very Saudi. And it makes me believe that Saudis exemplify the Arab hospitality that we hear about in the West, and they’re very generous and have been very […] welcoming to me. Secondly, I’m impressed by how much there is to see here and do, from the Balad and the beautiful architecture to the Corniche and the beautiful sunsets. There’s an awful lot to do and see and I’m very anxious to go out and explore and do it all.”
Something he is attracted to in the Middle East is the rich culture. “In the US, history is not very long, [but] here the history is very deep and rich. That history colors the people and enriches their character and view on the world. In addition to that, I feel like I connect with a lot of the spirituality of this region, and there’s a great sense of religion that runs very deep and is a core part of the region and that makes it very attractive to me.”
A fluent Arabic speaker, the new consul general also believes experiencing Saudi Arabia is crucial for a diplomat to have real expertise in this region.
Expertise in the Middle East
And that Holmstrom chose the Middle East as his area of expertise is clear: “I’ve spent most of my career in the Middle East, because it’s the area I find where the issues are the most compelling, and the people are the most interesting.”
From 2005 to 2008, Holmstrom lived in Damascus, where he served as the economic counselor, chief of the political/economic section, and as acting deputy chief of mission. Other countries in the region he has worked in are Tunisia and Egypt, and “everywhere I’ve worked and lived in the Middle East I very much enjoyed the experience and very much felt enriched by the experience, and have seen that same result in my children. Because of that experience I am looking pretty much forward to having a similar experience here in Saudi Arabia.”
Traits he says he has found throughout the Middle East are generosity, the importance of faith, the value of family, and a certain level of openness and tolerance as well as the desire to understand others, and Holmstrom has already found these traits in the Kingdom as well.
That is not to say that Holmstrom expects his time in the Hejaz to be exactly the same as the other places in the Middle East he has worked in. “In those different places I’ve seen diversity and not everyone is exactly the same. It’s not a monolith, and that’s what makes it so interesting and exciting for me.”
Big parts of the United States, Holmstrom believes, are similar to the Middle East in this sense. “I think the great thing about the relationship [between the US and the Kingdom] is the amount of exchange we’ve had between the two countries, and the amount of Saudi Arabians who are going to America and experience America for themselves.”
In other postings, Holmstrom and his colleagues have sent locals to America to increase understanding between the two countries, and this has always been a very positive experience.
“They’ve come back pretty consistently saying that they were surprised how warmly they were welcomed by Americans, how open Americans were to them, how interested Americans were to them, and they often found that Americans on a person to person level were very generous.”
Saudis studying in the US a “win-win” situation
According to the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, there are currently almost 125,000 Saudi students studying in the States.What does the consulate in Jeddah do to facilitate this enormous amount and what is the impact on Saudi-US relations?
Calling it a win-win, Holmstrom thinks this fact changes the bilateral relationship in “a lot of important positive ways.” Saudi students in the US are “important bridge builders between the two countries, between the two religions, between the two nations,” says Holmstrom, adding that they not only come back to the Kingdom understanding America, they also help Americans understand them better.
Besides that, the exchange leads to important contacts that “we hope will be lasting friends for them as they go through both their personal and professional lives, and they also, we hope, come back with skills and knowledge that are topical to the 21st century economy and make important contributions to Saudi Arabia.”
Given the importance, facilitating Saudi students is a great priority at his consulate, Holmstrom says. Not only will he look in how to help facilitate the visa process, the consulate is also currently expanding its consular services to process requests much quicker, and the public affairs section helps Saudi students to make an informed choice.
Other priorities for Holmstrom are to get out and meet the people of this city and region to learn their perspective on the world; to build more bridges of understanding between the two cultures and see what they have in common; and to build new partnerships.
“I think there’s lots of opportunities in that area. One that excites and interests me is the reforms that King Abdullah has done that involve both women and youth and allow them to make a larger contribution to Saudi Arabia,” he says, thinking this can help advance the country significantly.
Saudi-US relation strains
Lately, several media outlets have been talking about strains between the US and the Kingdom on a number of issues: Syria, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are just a few examples. What role does the new consul general hope to play to ease the tension?
Holmstrom believes the relation is very strong and enduring, and will continue to be because of the shared interests and values the two countries have.
“Like any strong, important relationship where people are working together on a lot of areas, there’ll be areas where we can work together with very little disagreements and other areas where there will be natural frictions.”
However, these frictions are not caused by the two countries having different endpoints: “We have the same end goal. Sometimes, we may disagree on the tactics on how we get to the end goal.”
Holmstrom’s role in this is to help his government understand the Saudi government’s perspective on things as well as “identify where they can work together to move some of these issues forward across the region and elsewhere.” The new US consul general also believes that increasing the number of Saudis studying in the US will be of great help to increase understanding.
Holmstrom is very optimistic about the future of Saudi-US relations: “The interests I think that we share […] are growing – they’re not becoming less. There are more opportunities to strike common cause as we go forward, and so I expect during my time here in Saudi Arabia to see the relationship continue to grow, to prosper, to go into new areas of cooperation, and to expand upon the existing areas.”