Firefighter

Adel Al Jubeir, the foreign affairs advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin AbdulAziz Al Saud, the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, speaks exclusively to Arabian Business about US-Saudi relations, the Kingdom's public relations campaign, fighting poverty, and the peace process a year after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  December 4, 2002

|~||~||~|Adel Al Jubeir is the foreign affairs advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin AbdulAziz Al Saud, the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. His life changed when the world changed on September 11, 2001. Today, Al Jubeir is at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s public relations campaign in the US.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Jubeir has been doing the circuits — CNN, ABC, Fox News, radio talk shows and clocking up hundreds of hours flying between Riyadh and Washington. His job is not an easy one. He has attempted, amidst all the negative publicity the Kingdom has received since the attacks of September 11, to humanise Saudis, in a country that some would say has launched an anti-Saudi campaign in its media.

Al Jubeir’s career perhaps makes him ideally placed to try to bridge the communications gap between Arabs and Westerners. He went to the USA in 1978 to get his early education in Northern Texas and has spent a total of 22 years living amongst Americans. He continued his education at Georgetown University, identified by many as ‘the’ school of career diplomats. In 1987, he was posted as special assistant to Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin AbdulAziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.

As a close confidant of Crown Prince Abdullah, he is right on the pulse of the Saudi administration’s views on key global issues. Here, he clarifies the Kingdom’s position on everything from the PR campaign in the West and the role of the Saudi press, to economic reform in the Kingdom and the regional peace process.

Arabian Business: We have been reading in American and European papers that you have been spearheading what has been dubbed as Saudi Arabia’s PR campaign in the West. What, in your opinion, a year after 9/11, is key in terms of conveying Saudi and Arab opinions in the US?

Adel Al Jubeir: September 11 was a triple shock for us. The first shock was the sheer magnitude of the crime. The second shock was when we discovered that there were 15 Saudis on the airplanes. The third shock was the reaction that it generated in the US — the doubts that were created about Saudi Arabia and about the Saudi people. We were not well equipped to deal with these charges because it is not in our nature to express our emotions publicly. We tend to internalise our emotions.

The nature of the American people is exactly the opposite — they tend to express their emotions publicly. So while Saudis were shocked and pained by what happened, this was not apparent to Americans. As a consequence, a perception developed in the US that we didn’t care about what happened, and this, in turn helped fuel a negative press. In addition, every critic of Saudi Arabia saw this as an opportunity to attack the Kingdom, and they did.

To deal with this situation, we began to express ourselves more openly; we opened the doors to journalists last November to visit the Kingdom and speak directly to our officials and citizens and see the Kingdom for what it is, rather than for what some critics are trying to portray it as.

By December and January the coverage of Saudi Arabia had become much more balanced because journalists could see things for themselves. We also realised that we needed to take our case directly to the American public, and we did this by reaching out to the American public, encouraging journalists to come and encouraging Saudis to visit. We did it by being more open in terms of what we do in the war on terrorism. The more we did, the more balanced the coverage became.
On the official level, the relationship between our two countries has never been stronger. The extent of cooperation in all areas is unprecedented and the extent of communication between the leadership of both countries is first rate.

The challenge is to correct misperceptions that exist among the American public about the Kingdom, and those which exist among the Saudi public about the US. Saudi citizens become disturbed when they read, in some articles, that Saudi Arabia is a breeding ground for terrorism.

They are disturbed when they read negative stories, which portray them and their country in a grossly distorted manner, and it leads them to question the motives behind such falsehoods. Just like you had a negative reaction among the American public, you had a negative reaction among the Saudi public and these reactions contradict what is going on at the official level between the two countries.
The only way to deal with this is on a long-term basis, and that’s what we have tried to do and it should not be considered unusual at all; other governments are trying to portray more accurate images of their countries and societies. The American government itself has been trying, for the past year, to find a way to present itself more positively to the Arab and Muslim world.
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AB: Is there at present a concerted or co-ordinated PR campaign with other Arab countries when dealing with the US? If not, should there be, in your opinion?

AAJ: There have been discussions and attempts to do that for a number of years, either through the Arab league or the GCC. But in terms of a formal effort, I believe there are discussions about this. Many of the issues we deal with in Saudi Arabia also have an impact on the Arab world.

For example, when we deal with the Palestinian issue that affects all Arabs. When we deal with Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the war on terrorism that is strictly a Saudi issue. Some of the concerns that exist among the American public towards Saudi Arabia do not exist with regard to other Arab countries.

AB: How would you characterise relations with the US Congress and Senate separate from the administration? How are relations on Capitol Hill? Do you feel there is a difference in how people there view the relationship between the US and Saudi?

AAJ: You have to differentiate between what people say and what people do. The US Congress tends to respond to more narrowly based constituent interests. Because what Members of Congress say is not binding on the US government, they go out and say things that may sound extreme in order to please certain constituencies.
But when it comes to actions in the US Congress, I would say it has been pretty normal. If there is any hostility in the Congress, it pertains to what is said, and not what is done.

AB: There are notable changes in the tone of articles in the Saudi press over the last year. There is more self-criticism and at times an urging of Saudis to take a hard look at themselves. Do you attribute this change also to 9/11?

AAJ: Our press is much more expressive now than it has ever been. There is more openness, and journalists are more willing to express their views than they have in the past. I believe this a natural development that we see taking place in the GCC countries generally.
After Sept. 11, we went through shock, then denial, and then introspection. This is a natural human reaction to major events. We were shocked by what happened. We went into denial because we could not believe that Saudis could have participated in this event.
Until today you will find people in the Kingdom who still cannot believe that Saudis were capable of such a horrendous crime. We are a peaceful society that doesn’t have a history of terrorism or mass murder. Today, many Saudis are looking for answers in their own, quite way. There is introspection.

AB: What do you think are the ramifications of an attack on Iraq or the region?
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AAJ: President Bush took this issue to the United Nations, where it rightly belongs. Iraq has agreed to let the inspectors return, which is a positive development. The UN passed a Security Council resolution, which clarifies what Iraq has to do in order to come into compliance with the previous resolutions that it committed to comply with after the war, which liberated Kuwait.

Now, the inspectors will be going back and doing their work. Hopefully we have averted a crisis and it is our hope that Iraq will be responsive to the UN in order to avoid a calamity that will have a negative impact on the whole region.

AB: What if an attack does take place?

AAJ: This is really is a speculative question. At this time we have a UN resolution that was passed, and we have acceptance of that resolution by the Iraqis, and we have the inspectors going back into Iraq.

Anything beyond that is speculative. Even in terms of the policy of the US, one has to differentiate between the rhetoric that comes from people outside the administration and the actions of the administration. If you recall, in the summer, the rhetoric in the US, especially from the right wing was, “we have to disarm Iraq unilaterally” and “we don’t have time to waste with the UN.”
President Bush never said this. His position has always been that he will examine all options and consult with all allies before making a decision. By Sept he took the matter to the UN. I believe the talk about war with Iraq, at this time, is rhetoric that is way ahead of policy. A war would not serve the interests of the region, the US or the world.

AB: The IMF recommended speedier economic reform in the Kingdom and the levying of taxes on expatriates. What is happening in the kingdom in terms of alleviating unemployment, which unofficially stands at 25-30%, and bettering the lives of Saudis?

AAJ: I think a lot of what you hear about the Saudi economy not fully accurate. We have a history over the past thirty years of trying to develop the country and provide opportunities for our citizens.
Unemployment, according to our official statistics, is 8.1% overall. It is 6.8% for males above the age of 30. The average annual compensation for Saudis is $22,500 and $67,000 for postgraduate degree holders. Compare that with average annual compensation in the US of $29,000, and these numbers are not so bad. The challenge lies with those under the age of 22, where unemployment figures tend to be around 25%.

We have 6 million expatriates working in Saudi Arabia, so theoretically you have 6 million jobs available. Granted, many Saudis are not willing to take those jobs, but in order for Saudi Arabia to be a normal country, Saudis need to take every job that is available. Having a Saudi working as a driver or a construction worker should not be abnormal.

The government is also trying to generate more jobs by encouraging investment opportunities. We are looking at different ideas, and there is no idea that can be put on the table that would not be considered, whether it involves taxation, changing the corporate laws and investment laws, or streamlining regulations.
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AB: What about the gas initiative, how much will that attract?

AAJ: You are looking at US $26 billion just for the first tranche of the investment.

AB: Did the Crown Prince personally get involved to smooth the gas initiative?

AAJ: It is a massive package and it is a complex package and it involves a lot of factors. The deal that you strike now is going to be with you for the next 20 years. So it is natural in negotiations that the oil companies will try to strike the best deal possible, and it should only be natural that Saudi Arabia will try to strike the best deal possible. There is a lot of give and take. I believe the gap has narrowed substantially and we are now in the final phase of negotiations. The decision has been made to open up the gas sector for investment, there is no going back. The issue becomes how you do it and with which companies you do it.

AB: Did the Crown Prince get involved?

AAJ: It was the Crown Prince’s initiative to open up the gas sector for private investment. The invitation to the oil companies was conveyed by the Crown Prince personally to the CEOs of oil companies during a visit to the US in the late 1990s. He has met with the CEOs of the companies over the past three years during their visits to the Kingdom, and he met with them in early summer of this year, to convey to them the Kingdom’s seriousness in moving forward and to encourage them to continue their talks with their Saudi counterparts.

AB: With the Likud party elections at the end of November and general elections in Israel in early 2003, the US intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem, and the lukewarm Israeli response to the Crown Prince’s peace initiative, what are the prospects for peace from where you are standing?

AAJ: In terms of the moving of the American Embassy, the congressional resolution is not binding. The congress has been advocating this for the past 20 years, and we all know why. In terms of the Arab peace initiative that grew out of the Crown Prince’s initiative — it’s on the table.

It is straightforward and very clear and it was supported and endorsed by most countries around the world. The ball is now clearly in the Israeli court. It’s up to them to decide if they want to live in peace in this neighbourhood or if they want to continue the conflict.

It’s their choice, and it is up to the Israeli public to make that decision if their government is incapable of making that decision, or unwilling to make that decision.

Elections will take place in Israel and this will be an opportunity for the Israeli public to decide whether they want their new government to move towards peace, so we can put this conflict behind us and shift the resources of the region from destructive wars and conflict to economic development.

We have violence, war, innocent people dying, tremendous loss and suffering. It is really time to bring this to an end.
The Arab side has put forward a credible and serious offer, which was endorsed by every Arab country. The Israelis have yet to respond positively to it.

Interview: Massoud A. Derhally||**||

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