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Adel al-Jubeir: the Face of Saudia Arabia Abroad

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Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington, DC, 2 May 2017. Photo NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP

After Salman bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud succeeded his half-brother as king of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on 23 January 2015, he replaced many members of the cabinet. The shake-up, the biggest in Saudi political history, included the replacement of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, with Adel al-Jubeir, the ambassador to Washington at the time. Al-Jubeir is only the second non-royal to be appointed as foreign minister of the kingdom.

Early Years

Al-Jubeir was born in 1962. He received his elementary education in Germany where his father, Ahmed Mohamed al-Jubeir, was serving as cultural attaché of the Saudi embassy in Bonn. Al-Jubeir finished his higher education in the United States (US). In 1982, he obtained a BA in political science and economics from the University of North Texas. In 1984, he earned an MA in international relations from Georgetown University, and in 2006, he received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University of North Texas.

Al-Jubeir joined Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic service in 1987. He was posted to the Saudi embassy in Washington, where he served as special assistant to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then ambassador.

His first appearance as a spokesperson for the Saudi government was in 1991 during the First Gulf War. He was part of the Saudi team that established a Joint Information Bureau at Dhahran, a city in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

He was also a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, and a member of the Saudi delegation to the Multilateral Arms Control Talks in Washington in 1992. In December 1992, he was dispatched with the kingdom’s armed forces to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope. He was also part of the Saudi Arabian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1994-1995.

Moreover, during his days at the embassy in Washington, he managed to build a strong network on Capitol Hill and with the US media and an array of think tanks in the city.

As a non-royal, al-Jubeir was initially viewed as Prince Bandar’s man in Washington, Arab diplomats said. Then King Abdullah – crown prince at the time – ordered him back to Riyadh in 2000 and began grooming him to be his own point person in Washington.

In the early 2000s, he officially, albeit briefly, became an adviser to the late King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz. He was sent back to Washington following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which greatly damaged Saudi Arabia’s global image, after it became clear that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian.

When al-Jubeir returned to Washington after his years in Riyadh, he was a very different man. Married to Farah al-Fayez, a father to three children and a stepfather to her twin daughters, he had given up his Western-style suits and cut a sober figure in his traditional robes.

He played a vital role in easing the tensions between the kingdom and the West. His fluency in German and his unaccented American English helped him to address the many questions and criticisms levelled at the kingdom at the time. He became the face of Saudi Arabia through hundreds of television appearances and other media interviews. He also toured the US, giving talks to different councils (such as the World Affairs Councils of America, which is dedicated to educating, inspiring and engaging Americans in international affairs), universities, civic organizations, business institutions and other interested groups in an attempt to rebuild Western trust in his homeland.

Al-Jubeir’s confidence and shuttle diplomacy after the 9/11 attacks gained him the trust of the royal family on the one hand and the American establishment on the other. In addition, serving alongside King Abdullah gave him a stature few diplomats can match.

He orchestrated the US-Saudi strategic dialogue, which was launched by King Abdullah and President George Bush, as a means to institutionalize relations between the two nations and deepen coordination on strategic, political, economic and counterterrorism issues.

“On Capitol Hill, Adel was the Saudi liberal face to the Western world, and he was very effective with it,” said Marwan al-Muasher, the former Jordanian ambassador to the US. “He was smooth.”

Steve Clemons, a foreign policy blogger and analyst who is an acquaintance of al-Jubeir’s, said, “Adel was considered by some to be a playboy of sorts, a guy who was not only a man about town but a bachelor who knew how to use Washington.”

Diplomatic Career

On 29 January 2007, al-Jubeir was appointed as ambassador to the US with the rank of minister. Among the important events in his career was his visit with King Abdullah to the Vatican in November 2007, where the king met Pope Benedict XVI, the first meeting between a Saudi monarch and a pontiff.

During al-Jubeir’s tenure, Saudi Arabia and the US signed a series of bilateral agreements in key areas including civil nuclear cooperation, enhanced security arrangements, reciprocal visa policies, health and medical services, and science and technology cooperation. The two countries also established two Joint Task Forces, one to combat terrorism, another to combat terror financing.

On 11 October 2011, US officials alleged there was a plot linked to the Iranian government to assassinate al-Jubeir in the US. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named the case Operation Red Coalition. Iranian nationals Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri were charged in a federal court in New York with plotting the assassination. US officials said the two men planned to kill al-Jubeir at a restaurant with a bomb and subsequently bomb the Saudi embassy and the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Key Tasks

Al-Jubeir’s tenure as the top Saudi diplomat handling the country’s foreign affairs has been a challenging one thus far.

During the Obama administration, he tried to make a case against the US-Iranian rapprochement and the Iran Nuclear Deal talks. He was the fiercest critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran deal, and tried to tone down its effect on the kingdom by saying that the provisions inserted in the deal are enough to curtail Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon. He also criticized the lifting of sanctions on Iran as a result of the nuclear deal, and continuously expressed his concern over Iran using the extra money to fund “nefarious activities” in the region and grow its influence.

He also took over the Syrian file from his predecessor, a country on which Saudi Arabia’s stance had been clear in regards to the need for President Bashar al-Assad to depart in order for a solution to be reached among the fighting factions.

In early 2016, according to al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia had been prepared to contribute ground troops to the war in Syria, on the condition that the military intervention against al-Assad was part of a US-led coalition and only after all political solutions had been exhausted. “Should that prove to be the case, then it becomes clear that there is no option but to remove Bashar al-Assad except by force,” he said. However, the Obama administration had no intention of doing so, and Saudi efforts in that direction were fruitless.

One of al-Jubeir’s most daunting tasks to date has been justifying the human costs of the Saudi-led intervention in the war in Yemen, which has been raging for more than two years. The shocking numbers coming out of the conflict include an estimated 2 million Yemeni children who are starving; the worst cholera outbreak in the world, with 200,000 known cases and 5,000 new ones every day; and an estimated 82 per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance.

However, al-Jubeir has been seen making the rounds from Washington to London in order to sustain international backing for the Saudi operation against the Shiite Houthis who seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa. His comments, whether true or not, have always been consistent in regards to Saudi fighting a “legitimate war” against what Saudi Arabia considers Iranian-backed rebels and refute the “inaccurate” claims about civilian casualties. Nonetheless, the Saudi intervention does not seem to be achieving its objectives.

Finally, al-Jubeir has been centre stage in his country’s row with its neighbour, Qatar. With the Saudi monarch busy reshuffling the line of succession and government positions, al-Jubeir has been travelling to Western cities to make a case for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, which started as a request for Qatar to halt its alleged support for ‘extremism and terrorism’ but has since expanded beyond the region.