Saudi Arabia's Oil On Troubled Waters
Adel al-Jubeir Tries to Smooth U.S. Relations
By Richard Leiby
[Washington Post - 4 December 2002]:
The new face of Saudi Arabia is cleanshaven, with soft features. It belongs to a dapper diplomat who talks like an American, dropping references to Kojak and Michael Jordan. Like him, they're bald guys -- and smooth.
"Whoa, my goodness," he begins, taking the stage at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia yesterday to address a huge media assemblage. "I am Adel al-Jubeir and I don't have any space on the podium."
A thick cluster of microphones leaves no room for his sheaf of prepared remarks. He has the world's attention -- 25 TV cameras line the auditorium -- but al-Jubeir doesn't need a script. Known to media veterans as the Sultan of Spin, he is delivering the same message the Saudi government has offered since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001:
We're not the terrorists, we're the victims. Osama bin Laden, who recruited 15 Saudi citizens to participate in the airborne attacks, hates us as much as he hates America.
"We are in this together," al-Jubeir often says, but that sound bite hasn't stuck. U.S. officials keep saying the Saudi kingdom -- whose major exports are oil, playboy princes and a puritanical strain of Islam -- hasn't been tough enough on charities that, directly or indirectly, keep violent Muslim fanatics in business. A few months before the latest headlines, a public opinion poll found 63 percent of Americans hold a negative view of the Saudis.
It's a cultural rift not seen since the oil crisis of the 1970s, when drivers fuming in gas lines cursed rich sheiks. Once again, "It's a feeding frenzy, it's 'let's bash the Saudis' time," al-Jubeir tells the news conference in a huff.
As someone who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years -- educated at North Texas State University, where his professors included future congressman Dick Armey, and at Georgetown University, where he earned his master's in international relations -- he takes this personally. He just can't abide what he calls "this severe and outrageous criticism which borders on hate."
"I'm really hurt," al-Jubeir says in an interview, one of maybe a hundred he's given in recent days. That statement, delivered with a sincere eyelock, reflects something new for the Saudis, who have usually toughed out public-opinion storms in Washington with well-paid lobbyists and faceless PR companies.
Now they've got an actual Saudi citizen . . . sharing his feelings.
"He understands America," says Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League. "He tells you what you want to hear."
Al-Jubeir, 40, holds the official title of foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler. In the early 1990s al-Jubeir came to be known informally as "ambassador to the Jews" when he reached out to Foxman and other Jewish community leaders, escorting them on several trips to Saudi Arabia.
"He's absolutely brilliant," Foxman says.
Some suggest that al-Jubeir has eclipsed the longtime Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for whom he once worked -- maybe not in terms of influence, but clearly in the public eye.
"I find him rather impressive -- smooth, elegant, well-educated. And convincing, up to a point," says Anthony Cave Brown, author of "Oil, God, and Gold" and a longtime observer of the kingdom. "But like all Saudis, you've got to watch him."
With a home in Washington and a mansion in Riyadh, al-Jubeir glides between the progressive West and a religious regime whose social restrictions call to mind the Taliban (amputations, beheadings, detentions of Christians, harassment of women who dare to reveal the outline of their figures, etc.).
Here he favors suits with carefully placed breast-pocket handkerchiefs. Back in Riyadh, he dons a traditional headdress, the ghutra, and a body covering called a thobe. He laughs about how easy it is to dress in Saudi Arabia: "We wear white sheets!"
He grew up in both worlds, but spent more time in the States than anywhere else. You can hear that in his barely inflected English, replete with idioms like "my hat's off to him" or "you're damned if you do or damned if you don't."
Unlike other Saudi officials, al-Jubeir has no royal bloodline to thank for his rise to glory. He likes to tell the story of his humble birth in a "mud house" in a village without running water or electricity. But he also acknowledges he was just delivered there; that the family actually lived in middle-class circumstances in Riyadh.
His father, a one-time oil field roughneck, became a lawyer and cultural attache posted to Germany. His mother reared seven children. For years Adel and some of his siblings spoke in German; he was later tutored in Arabic and religious studies.
In 1978, with his older sister and a younger brother, al-Jubeir moved to Denton, Tex., entering college at 16. He was in his early twenties and working on a doctorate at Georgetown when Bandar appointed him to the Saudi Foreign Service.
Al-Jubeir became a fixture on Capitol Hill during battles in the 1980s over U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. He sold the position that the Saudis didn't pose a military threat to Israel, and that the arms would ultimately benefit America.
"Unless we are engaged in a limited war, the United States will have to come in and fight it with us," he told a conference in 1989. "It's easier for the United States if it does not have to worry about spare parts and ammunition."
Presciently, he also said that Iraq posed the most immediate threat to Saudi national security. A year later, the United States launched Operation Desert Shield, in part to protect Saudi Arabia and its oil after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Al-Jubeir was dispatched to Dhahran, where he worked as a public information officer for the Saudis.
"He was mother hen to a large part of the press corps during Desert Storm," recalls Joel Johnson, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, who has known al-Jubeir for nearly 20 years. "He understood the press. . . .
"I think he relishes the role," says Johnson, "but he must be extraordinarily frustrated by the potshots taken at the Saudis by the U.S."
Defending his faith and government yesterday, al-Jubeir calls allegations of Saudi support of terrorism a "fiction" and says sharply, "With all due respect to the people who leak nonsense in Washington . . ." He orates and takes questions for 50 minutes, then invites the media to keep tossing him more.
Afterward, in a routine reminiscent of a film-promotion junket, he planted himself in front of cameras scattered throughout the embassy, doing one-on-one interviews for CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Al-Jubeir spins to CBS's Bill Plante -- "Our religious leaders have condemned terrorism" -- and banters off-camera about his bald heroes, including Michael Jordan. "I feel like a hippie compared to the people who shave their heads."
A correspondent for al-Jazeera, the Arab news network watched by millions, patiently trails him, asking questions in Arabic. Al-Jubeir fends him off, saying in English he simply has no time on his schedule.
Today it starts all over again at 7 a.m., he notes with a satisfied smile.
Does he have any other life? No, the bachelor says, not now. Al-Jubeir's only love: "My computer."
But there's also his public. He promises smitten viewers that they haven't seen the last of him. "Watch this space and stay tuned."