Saudi Arabia’s new foreign minister: The king’s confidante
Adel Al-Jubeir was appointed FM in a ground breaking move
On one of Washington’s hot summer days in 2011, American investigators informed the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel Al-Jubeir that he was the target of an assassination plot with alleged ties to Iran’s Quds Force. Jubeir kept cool, calm and collected according to one of his advisers, a demeanor that has long helped him steer Riyadh’s relations - even in tumultuous times - in the U.S. capital.
Jubeir’s appointment as Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat this week, while an unusual move bringing the first non-Royal figure to the job, is not surprising given his thick diplomatic resume and intimate knowledge of American and Saudi politics. A soft-spoken, strategic and skilled communicator, Jubeir’s appointment will help advance Saudi Arabia’s new pro-active foreign policy, and could be the nexus in integrating the agenda regionally as well as with the United States.
Washington is almost Jubeir’s “second home,” having lived there for the most part since he was as a graduate student at Georgetown University in 1982. In 1987, Jubeir took his first job with the Saudi government as special assistant to the ambassador in Washington at the age of 25.
Those who worked directly from the U.S. administration with Jubeir describe him as a “professional” diplomatJoyce Karam
It was operation “Desert Storm” in 1990, however, that gave rise to Jubeir’s political career, highlighting his communicator’s skills as Saudi Arabia’s spokesperson during that war. Fast forward 25 years later, Jubeir found himself in a somewhat similar role, announcing Saudi Arabia’s battle plan in Yemen and becoming the face of explaining operation “Decisive Storm” to the Western media.
Amal Mudallali, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who first met Jubeir in 1990, speaks of a “highly articulate communicator, who knows both worlds (Saudi Arabia and the U.S.) and is able to craft a message understood by both.” His fluent, unaccented English and nuanced diplomatic messaging, made him integral part of Saudi diplomacy post-9/11 attacks and following the Iraq war. More importantly, Jubeir’s sense of loyalty to successive Saudi monarchs from King Fahd (1982-2005) to King Abdullah (2005-2015) and now King Salman, helped a great deal in his ascendance and building credibility in Washington and Riyadh. There was “no double messaging, and anyone in the administration knows that when Adel delivers a message, it is coming from the King.” This in many ways explains Jubeir’s shuttle diplomacy between the two countries, “spending countless hours on weekly trips between Saudi and the United States.”
But it was Jubeir’s “intimate knowledge” of Washington and its many political corridors, that stands as his biggest asset, according to Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine. “He knew how to play the game and kept respectful distance from both parties (Democratic and Republican), while at the same time earning their respect.” Since assuming the ambassadorship in 2007, Jubeir’s most effective work was behind the scenes, avoiding flashy parties and even social media presence. He is believed to work 14hrs a day, six days a week.
A pro-active policy
Those who worked directly from the U.S. administration with Jubeir describe him as a “professional” diplomat, whose role was instrumental in improving relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“If there is one word I would use to describe Adel al Jubeir, it is professional”, says Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy. Ross worked with Jubeir during the Clinton years an envoy to the Middle East and during the Obama administration until November 2011 where he handled the Iran file. “He knows the world of diplomacy and obviously serves Saudi national interests while working to solve problems,” Ross adds in describing Jubeir. This approach is highlighted in how Jubeir views the Iran negotiations, supporting on the one hand a deal that would prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, yet requiring “more specificity in terms of restrictions and in terms of the inspections processes.”
While Jubeir’s appointment will go a long way in maintaining close Saudi-U.S. relations, Riyadh’s top diplomat is key in the kingdom’s new push for a more proactive and well-defined foreign policy. Countering Iran’s regional role and fighting ISIS stand as the core pillars of this new policy, according to a senior Arab diplomat. It is this agenda that Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman bin Abdulaziz is seeking to implement by healing the Gulf Corporation Council internal rifts, fighting ISIS and shifting focus on Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Jubeir’s appointment gives Saudi diplomacy a crucial boost in pursuing and explaining a more ambitious vision regionally, while maintaining its longstanding alliance with the United States.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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