Until a few years ago, Saudi Arabia's Adel Al-Jubeir was mainly known in Washington for his fourteen years of behind-the-scenes diplomatic work as special assistant to Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. But in 2000, Adel Al-Jubeir stepped out into the international limelight as his country's voice to the West and foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, the Kingdom's day-to-day ruler.
Veteran diplomatic correspondent Lee Michael Katz interviewed the often-frank Jubeir on May 6, getting Saudi views on a variety of subjects, from a proposed international peace conference on the Middle East to a possible U.S. war with Iraq.
NJ: The United States plans to arrange a major Middle East peace conference. Will Saudi Arabia participate?
Al-Jubeir: Our view is that if it's going to be a meeting in which we shake hands and discuss modalities and timelines, it would frankly be a waste of time. If it is a meeting in which we will discuss what we know a final outcome should look like, that may be a different situation. Until we know that, it would be impossible to give a yes or no answer.
We don't have any indication that Israel accepts the concept of withdrawal from the occupied territories. We don't have any indication from [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon that he accepts a freeze on settlements. Quite the contrary, he has said he will not freeze settlements through the year 2003.
For him today to be speaking about peace and peace agreements is being disingenuous. It's certainly not the kind of peace that the rest of the world is talking about.
NJ: Can Ariel Sharon change his thoughts, in your eyes?
Al-Jubeir: I'm not a psychologist, nor am I a mind reader. It is up to him to determine how history will remember him. He has the opportunity to be remembered as a peacemaker, or he has the opportunity to be remembered as a man with blood on his hands.
NJ: Sharon came to Washington saying he won't negotiate with Arafat. What does that mean for the peace process?
Al-Jubeir: It means that Sharon is not serious. You make peace with your adversaries, not with your friends. If Sharon thinks for one moment that he will have the Palestinians kow to him, he's dreaming.
NJ: The Crown Prince had great criticism of the United States for not being engaged, just a few months ago. Do you think the Bush administration is really serious about Middle East peace or just wants to put off Arab criticism in order to further its goals against Iraq?
Al-Jubeir: I don't believe it's an issue of placating the Arab world. I think it's an issue of protecting America's interests. America does not take positions because of charity; no country does.
As your friends, we believe in being frank and sincere with you. We saw the continuing violence in the territories as undermining America's credibility and interests in the region.
This administration is now fully engaged in the Middle East peace process. We saw the results in the mediation efforts with regard to the standoffs in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity. We also see it in enhanced consultations and coordination between the United States and its friends in the Arab world, as well as its European allies.
NJ: The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a special relationship since Franklin Roosevelt. But probably the most serious rift in its history was on display recently when a senior Saudi official warned that your country might even use oil as a weapon against the United States.
Al-Jubeir: We denied it vehemently. Oil is not a weapon. It is not a tank. You cannot fire it. Every single human being on this planet, in one way or another, is dependent to some extent on what happens in the oil markets. It's too important an issue to fiddle with. It is our policy to depoliticize oil.
We have had solid relations for over six decades. Those relations have seen the coming and breaking of many storms. Even today, our relationship is extremely strong on every level: economic, political, military, people to people. Where people saw a rift, which is not a rift, was us urging the administration to play a bigger role in bringing an end to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps you've noticed a partnership that is emerging between Saudi Arabia and the United States for the sake of peace in the Middle East.
NJ: You've also been very careful about your image in the United States after September 11. Is Saudi Arabia trying to compete with Israel in influencing Congress?
Al-Jubeir: After September 11, we made an effort to reach out to members and explain to them what Saudi Arabia is doing in the war on terrorism, because there were a lot of misrepresentations in the American media.
Our dealings with Congress are not an attempt to compete with anyone. Our dealings are an attempt to explain the nature of the bilateral relationship and its importance to both countries. Members of Congress in general are reasonable and willing to listen. A lot of the shock that people had in the fall has dissipated to a large extent.
NJ: The fact remains that 15 of 19 of the September 11 hijackers had Saudi ties. Many people say that religious schools nurtured by Saudi money in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, around the world-even here-preach hate against the United States. What has Saudi Arabia done about that?
Al-Jubeir: On the issue of the Saudis on the planes, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization has membership from 60 different countries. He could have put any number of nationalities on those planes. He intentionally chose Saudis to give the operation a Saudi face in order to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. You know what? He almost succeeded, but it didn't work. With regard to the funding of schools, it's unfortunate that when it comes to Saudi Arabia, oftentimes charges are treated as facts. They're not investigated. We have not been able to get anyone to name one school - one school - preaching hatred of the West that is funded by Saudi Arabia.
NJ: A lot of people seem to think the madrassas really do preach hate, that Westerners are infidels -
Al-Jubeir: But how are we tied to it?
NJ: You fund them.
Al-Jubeir: We don't fund them. People talk about them because maybe the building was built by Saudi money, yes. You have 3 million to 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, living in squalor, and we are very proud of the fact that our citizens stepped up and built shelters for them. If those shelters are transformed by evildoers into breeding grounds for extremism, do you blame the person who gave the money in order to shelter refugees? Of course you can't.
NJ: Why did you take the extraordinary step of broadcasting ads about Saudi Arabia's role in combating terrorism?
Al-Jubeir: We were cooperating with the war on terrorism from day one. Your secretary of the Treasury is very appreciative of it, your State Department, your president, Secretary Rumsfeld.
The ads are an attempt to show that Saudi Arabia cares about its relationship with the United States and wants to ensure the American public is aware of the facts. There's nothing wrong about it.
NJ: I read an editorial suggesting that Saudi Arabia is taking such a visible role in peacemaking to remove "the stain" of its link to September 11.
Al-Jubeir: That's absolute nonsense. Saudi Arabia is committed to the peace process. It has been for over 30 years.
The reason the Kingdom stepped up to the plate now is because this problem has gone on for too long unattended, and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia felt that he had to step in and offer a way out. He received immediate support from over 60 countries. It re-energized the peace camps in Israel, Europe, and in the U.S.
It re-energized or refocused governments around the world on this problem. That was the motivator. The motivator was not a public-relations ploy, because if that were the case, why not introduce it in October instead of February or March?
NJ: Sharon said he'd love to go to Saudi Arabia. Why will no Saudi diplomat speak to Sharon or any Israeli official?
Al-Jubeir: Because it's a charade by Sharon. Sharon's problem is with the Palestinians, not with Saudis. The proper address for Sharon to talk to is Yasir Arafat's, not Riyadh. If America has a problem with Canada, can America demand that it talk to India? Of course not.
Sharon has talked about everything under the sun, proposing one plan after another-and they're all weak. But he hasn't talked about the main issue: Is he willing to end the military occupation of Palestinian land? Is he willing to allow a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and willing to return the Golan Heights in return for acceptance, a formal end to the conflict with Israel, and normal relations with the Arab world? Everything the Israelis have ever wanted for 50 years is on the table, and Sharon still refuses to take yes for an answer.
NJ: The Israelis brought to the White House a report-and there have been other reports-that Saudi Arabia funds terrorism by paying money to relatives of those who've conducted suicide bombings.
Al-Jubeir: What you have is a lie that's repeated and repeated, and people assume it's a fact. Saudi Arabia does not support terrorism. Saudi Arabia is very proud of the fact that it has given hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to the Palestinians over the years to build their institutions, infrastructure, put food on their tables, medicine in their pharmacies. Fifty percent of the Palestinians today, as a consequence of the Israeli occupation and aggression against them, live below the poverty line.
Thousands of Palestinians have had their breadwinners killed by the Israelis. Are we supposed to sit back and do nothing? Can I say that the American government supports suicide bombers because it gives money to the Palestinians?
NJ: Can you say that none of the Saudi money went to families of suicide bombers in exchange for their "martyrdom"?
Al-Jubeir: No, none of the money went to Palestinian families to reward them for the suicide of their sons or daughters. If some money went to those families, it's to help them in their need. But it didn't go to encourage [violence]. For anyone to think that the life of a Palestinian is worth $5,000 is outrageous.
NJ: Would Saudi Arabia support a U.S. decision to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq and would it allow the United States to use its Prince Sultan Air Base command center?
Al-Jubeir: We believe that the Iraq situation is an arms control problem and not a terrorism problem. The inspectors should be returned to Iraq and economic sanctions eased so the Iraqi people can enjoy a better standard of living.
Our view is the use of force at this time would not serve America's interests, or the interests of the region. Saudi Arabia is not a theater for individual initiatives designed for any purpose that does not serve our interests.