The complete text of Ali al-Naimi’s address to the Class of 2012.
Monday, 21 May, 2012
Madam President, devoted members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished members of the faculty, dedicated members of the administration and staff. Celebrated honorary degree recipients, proud parents, families and friends of today’s graduating class. And jubilant, enthusiastic—and no doubt relieved—graduating students, whose special day this is and whose success we celebrate. Thank you, Dr. Gast, for your kind words of introduction and for inviting me to speak here today. It is a great honor for me to give the commencement speech at Lehigh University, the place from which I graduated 50 years ago.
Apart from today’s graduates, there are two other special groups who deserve our recognition and thanks. First the faculty, administration and staff. It is they who have served and supported you on campus, prodded you on, encouraged your efforts and answered your questions. It is they who have transformed you, by some miracle, from timid and anxious freshmen and women into the confident, brilliant graduates you have become today. Please join me in a round of applause for members of the faculty, administration and staff.
There is another group that I want to recognize and salute today. They are the unsung heroes of today’s celebration. They are a group even more thankful and relieved to see today’s graduation than are the graduates. I refer to the parents and families of today’s graduates. For them, four long years of anxiety, and four long years of financial bondage are finally over. Every one of today’s graduates owes an incalculable debt to their parents and close family members. For the love, the confidence they have given you, for the financial sacrifices they have made for you, for the trust and belief they have had in you every day of this long journey. Again, please join me in a round of applause for the parents and families of today’s graduates.
Class of 2012.
I’d like to speak with you today about making a difference. About how your family, friends and the faculty here at Lehigh have already made a difference to your young lives. And about the difference I believe you can make to the world from this day forward.
I intend to talk to you about my own time here at Lehigh in the early 1960s, about the class of 2012, and then look ahead to 50 years from now. Of course, some things have changed but many have remained the same—at Lehigh, in the U.S., and in the world.
There is one thing, I see, that remains constant. From 1959 through 1962, Lehigh beat the Leopards at football. And this year, Lehigh again beat the Leopards … I also read that the basketball team whipped Duke.
Class of 2012.
I first came to the United States from Saudi Arabia in 1959, before all of you, and some of your parents, were even born. John F. Kennedy was U.S. President, Elvis Presley was at the top of the charts and John Wayne was the leading movie actor of the day. It was a time of the Cold War and of the Space Race. It was a time of high hopes and widespread fears, of optimism and opportunity, and a period of striking successes and conspicuous failures.
Back then, my country was poor and undeveloped and the U.S. was already a leading power on the world stage. And, while hard to believe for the class of 2012, the internet didn’t exist, there was no Facebook, no iPhones, no iPads. In fact, even though the Soviets and America were planning their missions to space, it took me four days by aeroplane to reach the U.S. from Saudi Arabia—a journey which today takes only 15 hours.
Soon after I arrived at Lehigh I was invited to a women’s group meeting. A lady asked me how I got to America. Did I come on a camel? Well, the plane on which I flew from Saudi Arabia was known as the flying camel. So I said to her: Yes, I came on a flying camel. She was amazed.
On another occasion, I remember meeting an Amish man in Lancaster. He looked me up and down and said: “Son, where are you from?” I told him: “I am from Saudi Arabia.” He wondered for a minute and asked me: “Whereabouts in Pennsylvania is that?” So I told him it was near Bethlehem …
The relationship and understanding between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is much improved today. Let us not forget that it was U.S. companies which first discovered oil in Saudi Arabia and many thousands of Americans continue to live and work there. When I came here I was one of a very few Saudis who studied in the U.S. Now there are thousands. Our two nations remain allies in the Middle East and have a close relationship when it comes to energy and other matters. For that bond goes far beyond energy.
We seek together a world of greater understanding, mutual tolerance and respect for human dignity and peaceful interdependence. I hope my visit here today is a further sign of that enduring bond between our two peoples.
Class of 2012.
Much has changed at Lehigh in 50 years since I first arrived. The buildings, this sports field, the facilities are all improved. But the greatest improvement has been the introduction of female students to Lehigh 40 years ago.
Yet despite these changes, it is obvious to me that many of the most important aspects of Lehigh have not changed. The high quality of faculty, for one, and the high level of academic expectation and achievement for another.
It is true today, as it was back in 1962, that students from Lehigh occupy an elevated and elite position. Not just compared to local rivals—that’s obvious—but in terms of the U.S. and worldwide.
I heard of a student in a Boston supermarket who came to the “Ten-Items-or-Under” checkout lane with a heavily loaded grocery cart. The clerk glanced at the cart and said: “I don’t know whether you’re from M.I.T. and can’t read, or from Harvard and can’t count.” Lehigh graduates, I am proud to note, can both read and count.
Class of 2012, very few people reach the position you have reached here today. With that comes wonderful opportunities. But it also brings responsibilities. A responsibility to use your knowledge, as I have tried to do, to bring about progress and positive change.
Which brings me on to speak about the world of 2012.
The world today is also a time of hopes and fears, and a period of discovery and progress. Yet from the beautiful setting of the Lehigh campus, it would be easy to forget that the world faces many difficult challenges.
The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78. In some African countries it’s under 50. Almost one billion people do not have access to clean drinking water and one billion people go hungry every day. And in terms of women, a pertinent topic today, it is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion poor people are female.
There are also many energy challenges ahead—international, economic and environmental in nature. They are not theoretical problems. They are real issues facing humanity. Solving these problems will require intellect, persistence, passion and hard work. These are attributes I learned at Lehigh and they are attributes with which I am sure you are now equipped. It falls to you to help find solutions to these and many other issues.
People ask me about my own career, about my long and incredible journey from a nomadic, Bedouin, little boy, to Lehigh graduate, to CEO of the largest company in the world, to Saudi oil minister. When I speak with young people, they want to know the secret of my successful journey.
Class of 2012, I’m afraid there is no secret.
Of course, intelligence helps. You would not be here if you were not intelligent. But, to quote Albert Einstein, imagination is more important than knowledge. It’s what you do with your knowledge that counts.
It is vital that you have ambition. It is also important you have drive, persistence and determination. And you need to be flexible. But it is just as important to remain humble, avoid envy and never forget the people who made these opportunities possible. Your teachers and professors, your friends and most of all your families, so many of whom are here today to witness this momentous occasion.
After intelligence and ambition, success comes down to hard work—and luck. That is certainly true in my life. But what is luck? It’s about working hard to reach a situation where you have options. Where you have choices. And it is about using your intelligence to make the right choices.
So, class of 2012, what about 50 years from now? The only thing of which I am certain is that Lehigh will beat the Leopards at football.
No one can predict the future, but we can all work towards creating the sort of world in which we want our children and grandchildren to grow up. A world of peace and harmony, of prosperity, of environmental responsibility, of opportunity for all mankind and a world free of hunger and poverty.
These are lofty ideals but achievable aims. Aims that the class of 2012 should seek to address through their effort, application and determination.
Class of 2012. You will go through various stages in your lives. First, there’s the job, where the goal is earning a living; then there’s the career, where the aim is advancement and achievement; and finally, there’s the calling. This is the ideal blending of character, activity and high commitment that inspires work and makes it inseparable from life. I hope all of you, whatever your careers, will commit yourselves to a calling and commitment to those larger goals.
It was President John F. Kennedy who said: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.” You, the class of 2012, have the chance to make a difference with your ideas. I am certain that Lehigh will continue to be one of the foremost universities in the country, and I am certain it will continue to flourish academically.
In 2062, when you return for your 50th reunion, I hope it will be said that your ideas will live on and that they will have made a difference.
Class of 2012, congratulations on your graduation. Go make a difference.
Photo by Theo Anderson