COLEMAN: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Isobel Coleman and it is my great pleasure to be here this afternoon with the minister of foreign affairs from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, His Excellency, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, who really needs no introduction.
So many people who speak here don’t, but in this case, anyone who has followed anything about Saudi Arabia for the last decades knows His Excellency extremely well. He has studied in the United States, began his diplomatic career in Washington, D.C., became the Saudi ambassador to Washington for nearly a decade, and, in April of 2015, became the country’s foreign minister. So welcome.
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you.
COLEMAN: Thank you for joining us here today.
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you. Great to be here.
COLEMAN: I thought I would start with an easy question. Yemen. (Laughter.)
AL-JUBEIR: Yes. Very easy.
COLEMAN: Very easy. The war has been going on for some years. Some are saying that it has become a quagmire. There is growing consternation at the U.N., broadly among human rights groups, even among those—some in the American Congress about the direction of the war, concerns about U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Has it become a quagmire? How are you thinking about the war in Yemen? What are your next steps?
AL-JUBEIR: Yeah. I don’t believe it’s a quagmire and this is a war that we didn’t choose. This is a war that we didn’t want. This is a war that was imposed on us. People forget that Saudi Arabia was instrumental in bringing about a transition in Yemen from President—former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the transitional government.
We brought Yemenis from all walks of life in what is called the national dialogue. They discussed the future of Yemen. They came up with a vision of Yemen that would be a federal system and they plotted out their future, and then they chose a group to write the constitution, and then the Houthis struck. They moved from Sadah to Amran, and they took over Sana’a in a coup, and they declared themselves in charge of Yemen.
The president of Yemen was imprisoned in his house. He was able to escape and go to Aden and called for support, and we responded based on Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. There was no way that we were going to allow a radical militia allied with Iran and Hezbollah, in possession of ballistic missiles and an air force, to take over a country that is strategically important to the world and that is our neighbor.
And so we responded to reverse the coup that the Houthis staged, and over the past three and a half years, four years—almost four years—the Houthi control of Yemen has shrunk from eighty percent to twenty percent. The Houthis have lobbed 197 ballistic missiles at our cities and they have fired more than two hundred ballistic missiles at Yemeni cities, and I don’t see outrage.
The Houthis have laid siege on towns and villages and stopped food and water from coming into those villages. As a consequence, people starve. We get blamed. The Houthis prevent the World Health Organization or delay their entry into areas controlled by them to vaccinate people with cholera vaccine that we paid for, and when cholera breaks out people blame us, and I don’t see outrage at the Houthis.
The Houthis use boys who are eight, nine, ten, eleven, put them into battle. We capture them, we rehabilitate them, we send them back to their families, and we get blamed. The Houthis randomly plant mines all over the country and people lose life and limb, and nobody says anything. We get blamed for it. When we have operations that—where a mistake is made and we think a mistake is made, we investigate, we announce the results of the investigation, and we pay compensation, which is what you do according to international humanitarian law.
The Houthis, none of this. They assassinate political leaders, including the former president. No outrage. The Houthis have made more than seventy agreements and they haven’t fulfilled or lived up to any of them, and we get blamed. We support the U.N. political process. We support the U.N. envoy, whether it was Ismail Ould Cheikh or whether it’s Martin Griffith(s). The Houthis talk one thing and nothing happens, and we get blamed.
So I tell people, before you rush to judgment and accuse us of something, what other option did we have. Do we want a Hezbollah-controlled country on our southern border? No. Not going to happen. Do we want a Hezbollah-controlled country controlling access to the Red Sea where more than ten percent of the world trade takes place? No.
Do we want to give Yemen to the Iranians? No. Ten percent of the Yemeni population, as we speak, lives in Saudi Arabia. We have incredible ties with Yemen historically—familial ties and political ties—and we expect that once this war is over, and it will be over, that we will be able to go back and reconstruct Yemen and turn them into a good partner of ours. We have provided Yemen with $13 billion in humanitarian assistance in the—since the war began, which is more than the rest of the world combined. We have set aside $10 billion that we will increase to twenty billion (dollars) for a fund for the reconstruction of Yemen.
We have an office that’s already looking at what projects to do in Yemen and how we can fast track them once the war comes to an end, and we hope that the Yemenis will—that the Houthis will accept a political solution, because we have said from the very beginning that the solution to this problem is a political solution, not a military one, based on the outcome—based on the GCC initiative, the outcome of the Yemeni national dialogue, and U.N. Security Council 2216. Very simple.
The Houthis have every right to be part of the Yemeni political system. But they have no right to dominate the country. And we’re hoping that as the military pressure continues to build on them that they will come to the negotiating table and make a deal that they could have made three years ago.
And so it took an international coalition of more than sixty countries including the world’s great powers—the U.S. and France and Germany and England and Australia and you name them—five years, if not six, before they were able to turn the dial against ISIS in Syria.
So when people say it’s been three-and-a-half years or so—this has gone on too long—what about the fight against ISIS in Syria, of which we were a founding member? So these things take time, and you hope that your opponent or enemy would be wise enough to recognize that it’s better to make a deal than to keep on fighting.
So we’re not against a political settlement. We’ve supported every initiative for a political settlement. It’s the Houthis who have said no. Now, we lost the communications battle from the beginning and that’s why people—that’s why the— our reputation has taken a big hit.
That’s why there’s a lot of public pressure on governments, from NGOs, and from media and so forth about this war. But I think people are not realistic in looking at this picture, and my question is usually what other option did we have. There was no other option.
COLEMAN: You mentioned the need for a political resolution. The Houthis walked out of the U.N.-led talks in Geneva a couple of weeks ago.
COLEMAN: The UAE has said that they would reengage in a political process. I assume Saudi Arabia is ready to—always ready to engage on that process. Do you see a U.N.-led political process having any viability in the medium term—near to medium term?
AL-JUBEIR: Yes. Yes. I’m optimistic. I’m an optimist. I always tell people that if your job is to solve problems you have to be an optimist. If you’re a pessimist, you can’t be a diplomat. You should be a journalist—(laughter)—with all due respect to journalists, because you can write things—you can express your pessimism. But if, as a diplomat, I am pessimistic, why am I doing this job if I don’t think a problem can be solved? Why am I even tackling it?
So, yes, I believe the U.N. process is the only viable process for a resolution of this. We have great respect for Martin Griffith(s). I think he’s approaching it the right way. We have great respect for Ismail Ould Cheikh. And I think he—with continued perseverance, I think we will get there.
COLEMAN: Thank you.
Well, you mentioned Syria so let’s turn to that hotspot. Assad is still in power. The Iranians seem to be coming more entrenched. The Trump administration is making noises about removing troops. What do you see happening in Syria? How does Saudi Arabia intend to protect its interest there?
AL-JUBEIR: I think—
COLEMAN: As you’ve noted, that has been a very long war.
AL-JUBEIR: Yes. No, and Syria is very tragic. It could have ended much, much sooner had there been more robust support for the moderate opposition in the beginning of the conflict. But there wasn’t. I think drawing a red line and then not enforcing the red line was a huge strategic mistake that emboldened the Assad regime and its allies.
And then when the—when Russia intervened, it tipped the balance and that’s when the military option was no longer viable, and our view is we need to work on a political settlement based on the Geneva 1 declaration and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a political process, constitutional committee, and then referendum, and then elections, and the—Staffan de Mistura has been working on this. We worked in 2015 to bring the Syrian opposition, unify them at the Riyadh conference, and we succeeded, so now we had one grouping.
Last summer, we worked on getting the Syrian opposition to—again, to Riyadh 2 conference last fall—sorry—where they adopted the position that they will go into political negotiations without preconditions so that the idea that Bashar al-Assad has to leave at the beginning of the process was no longer a precondition. The political process will take place and it will evolve, and whatever the Syrian people want in the end of it is what they get. There were the talks in Astana with regards to de-escalation zones that have been somewhat successful and somewhat not.
There were discussions at Sochi where the concept of a constitutional committee was adopted where the opposition would nominate fifty, the regime would nominate fifty, and the U.N. would select fifty from NGOs and other groups. Those people have been selected. There’s still some give and take a little bit with regards to the ones selected by the U.N. envoy. I think the regime wants to have more of people who are closer to it and Staffan de Mistura has been resisting this.
So I think we’re hoping that we’ll move towards a political settlement. There is no option other than that. The military situation will come to an end. But then you have to deal with reconstruction, and you can’t have reconstruction absent a credible political process. And if you don’t have reconstruction, the situation will become much worse because Syria will continue to be a magnet for extremism and terrorism, which is a danger to all of us. So that’s where we are in Syria.
COLEMAN: Syria is a place where your interests quite closely align with those of Israel. How are you coordinating with Israel with respect to Syria?
AL-JUBEIR: We’re not.
COLEMAN: Not at all?
AL-JUBEIR: No. (Laughter.) We have no relations with Israel. I think in Syria we have—our interests are aligned also with Jordan, with other Arab countries. We are working within the Arab world of trying—of mobilizing a group of countries in order to have some influence on the political process in Syria.
COLEMAN: OK. Maybe we can turn to the peace process, or maybe the lack of a peace process. I think from the administration’s view—the U.S. administration—there seemed to be hope that Saudi Arabia would bring the Palestinians along, and from New York it doesn’t look like there’s much going on. Do you want to talk a little bit about where that resides right now?
AL-JUBEIR: I think we do not bring the Palestinians along. We support the Palestinians and we advise the Palestinians. But, ultimately, the decisions are those for the Palestinians. Our position is that a political settlement is the formula we all know. It’s two states. It’s ’67 borders with minor mutually-agreed-to adjustments to incorporate most of the settlers into the—into Israel—East Jerusalem, Palestinian capital, West Jerusalem, Israeli capital—the old city, special arrangements so that both sides have sovereignty over their holy sites.
And then we have the issue of refugees was already settled in terms of the formula for dealing with it. The issue of security—the plan was developed by General Allen in 2000. It’s probably sitting on a shelf somewhere at the NSC—can be updated, and everything else is in place. The formula is there. Our advice to every administration since the Bush administration was you have to take a plan. The two sides cannot come together because it’s too difficult. You have five issues to deal with—forget the order—borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, security.
If the leaders agree on one, it becomes very difficult to agree on the second. If they get to the second and they start to think about the third, the rug gets pulled out from under them and it goes nowhere. There’s distrust between the two sides. We know that most people want a two-state settlement. But they don’t trust each other.
So our advice is put the package together and put it on the table and mobilize the international community to support it and give the two parties the confidence to move forward. And this still remains our position. So the Palestinians—we have tripled our support for the Palestinians in terms of monthly support for the Palestinian Authority. We have provided $150 million for the—for the Islamic trusts in Jerusalem.
We have—we have added $50 million to our contribution to UNRWA to reduce the gap from the U.S. cutbacks. The Emiratis and the Kuwaitis also joined us in putting $50 million each so we can reduce the gap further and we have said to the Palestinians that this is a process that you drive. So this idea that we will deliver, we don’t deliver. We support.
COLEMAN: Was the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and to cut off funding for UNRWA, which supports the Palestinian refugees, was that a mistake?
AL-JUBEIR: I think the decision to move the embassy was a mistake that we disagreed with vehemently. We thought the—we believe that Jerusalem is a final status issue that should be decided at the end of the talks. We believe that it violates the principle of not taking unilateral actions that jeopardize the final status talks, and this is what happened.
Now, the administration has said that the final borders of Jerusalem are subject to negotiations so that didn’t really recognize East Jerusalem as being part of Israel, and they said that the status of the holy sites remains as is so that means they didn't recognize Israeli sovereignty of the holy sites.
So what have they done? Inflamed the passions of 1.5 billion Muslims, and in the process, it led to a deterioration in the relationship between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority, which makes it more difficult to engage and to try to talk about peace.
The issue with UNRWA is tragic because UNRWA is responsible for the education of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children and it’s responsible for running schools for refugee camps. It’s responsible for providing milk for kids. It’s responsible for—that’s what it does. And if we don’t support UNRWA, the misery in the camps goes up, the potential to recruit extremists goes up, and violence goes up. So it’s—I hope that the U.S. will find a way to reverse that decision or to find other means to support institutions that provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in the refugee camps.
COLEMAN: Thank you.
So last month, the Canadian foreign minister issued a tweet calling for the release of two activists who had been detained in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi reaction was fierce.
COLEMAN: Tom Friedman called it an absurd overreaction. Others have said it was quite out of—out of line. The Saudis—you pulled your students from Canada, people receiving medical treatment. Diplomats froze airlines. It’s been a deep freeze between the two countries. Chrystia Freeland, the foreign minister, was here yesterday and said you two have been talking.
I just wonder if you could comment on where you see that dispute, how it’s evolving, how it will be resolved, and also talk about human rights in Saudi Arabia, which she’s not the only one to have raised concerns about crackdowns on activists, broadly.
AL-JUBEIR: Yes. Two things—the students are in Canada until we can find a place to move them. So we didn’t pull out the students. The patients—we don’t have patients in Canada. I believe there are only two.
AL-JUBEIR: So that’s exaggeration. We stopped new investment in Canada and we stopped new Canadian investment in Saudi Arabia, and we stopped airline traffic to Canada, and we asked Canada to take their ambassador back and we recalled our ambassador. We didn’t cut relations.
It is outrageous, from our perspective, that a country will sit there and lecture us and make demands—we demand the immediate release. Really? We demand the immediate independence of Quebec. We demand the immediate granting of equal rights to Canadian Indians. What on earth are you talking about?
You can criticize us about human rights. You can criticize us about women’s rights. America does. The State Department issues reports every year. British Parliament does. European Parliament does. French Parliament does. German government does. Others, too. That’s right. Let’s—you’re right. We can sit down and talk about it. But we demand the immediate release? What are we, a banana republic? Would any country accept this?
No, we don’t. You do this, you play into the hands of the extremists who are opposing our reform process. If we don’t take steps, it means that we’re weak. If we take steps, we damage a relationship with a friendly country. We didn’t do this. You did. Fix it. Fix it. You owe us an apology. You can talk to us about human rights anytime you want. We’d be happy to have that conversation like we do with all of our allies. But lecturing us? No way. Not going to happen, and enough is enough.
We don’t want to be a political football in Canada’s domestic politics. That’s what we became. Find another ball to play with, not Saudi Arabia. And that’s where—that’s why the reaction in our country was so strong. Very easy to fix. Apologize. Say you made a mistake.
We had the Canadian ambassador. He met with our public prosecutor, who explained to him what the charges are and said to him this is not about rights. This is about national security. These were individuals who are accused of taking money from governments, accused of recruiting people to obtain sensitive information from the government and passing it on to hostile powers, accused of providing—raising money and providing it to people who are hostile to Saudi Arabia outside of Saudi Arabia. Some of them were released as the investigation proceeded. Others will go to trial, and the evidence will be revealed to the world.
So the Canadians knew this was not about rights. This was about national security. And then for a tweet like this to come out in this manner, from our perspective, is outrageous.
COLEMAN: Thank you.
In your role as foreign minister, you travel around the world and meet with many leaders in the business community and, undoubtedly, top of the agenda is Saudi Arabia’s reform initiatives. Do you hear concerns from members of the business community about capital flight, which we read about, and also due process in Saudi Arabia with people who have—business leaders in the country who have been—we all read about the roundup in the Ritz-Carlton last fall—just concerns about rule of law and how that affects investment?
AL-JUBEIR: I think the concern we had in Saudi Arabia was about corruption. I think we—not I think—I know that we tried to deal with it from the bottom up. It didn’t work. So you take drastic measures and you take dramatic action and you deal with it from the top down, and you then settle with people and if—those who don’t want to settle they end up going to trial. And most of them have settled. Some of them will go to trial.
That was the most effective way to deal with this issue, and it sends a message that we will not tolerate people looting from the public treasury. We will not tolerate people providing sweetheart contracts to their friends in exchange for a percentage of those contracts. And so this was a powerful message that was sent to people and I think it’s a reassuring message that if you want to do business in Saudi Arabia you don’t have to worry about paying kickbacks. That’s on the one hand.
In terms of reassuring investors in Saudi Arabia, we have upgraded our commercial laws. We’re upgrading our legal system. We’re making it more efficient, we’re making it more transparent, and I think this will enhance investor confidence in Saudi Arabia. We’re opening up the country to—or new sectors for investment like mining, like entertainment, like recreation, in terms of renewable energy, in terms of infrastructure, and we’re seeing investors coming in to look at these projects.
We have—we’re trying to build a society that’s based on innovation and technology, renewable energy, because we think that’s where our strength is. We want to reduce our dependence on oil. Our income from—the percentage of our GDP from oil is shrinking and we want to reduce it further. We can produce oil for a hundred years, but the world may not need it in twenty years or thirty years. I hope they use it for a hundred years or they find other uses for it.
But we can’t—we have to move away from that and move towards a more diversified economy and that’s why our Vision 2030 plan—that’s the objective it’s trying to achieve and so far things are moving in the right direction. I expect that things will keep accelerating at a faster pace.
Last year, we had almost zero economic growth. This year, the numbers were revised twice by the IMF upwards and we’re looking at close to two percent growth. We expect more next year and I think that’s—as the changes—the structural changes begin to kick in, you will see—expect to see more accelerated economic growth.
COLEMAN: Do you think that the rise in GDP growth and the rise in the price of oil takes some of the pressure off of the urgency for the reform agenda in Saudi Arabia?
AL-JUBEIR: No. No. We looked at the Saudi—I’m not an economist so I speak about this second hand—we looked at the Saudi economy. We said we’re a country that has no debt. We expect to have X amount of deficits. We should raise some debt because—it’s domestic debt as well as external debt—because domestic debt is good. It gives banks something to invest in.
And so we’ve assumed that over a period of X number of years we will close the deficit and we will have been able to cover the gap in spending during the ensuing years from a combination of borrowing, bonds, and our financial reserves, and then we will end up without cutting back on spending so that you keep spending constant.
It doesn’t impact the quality of services you provide to your population. It doesn’t impact on the projects that you’re engaged in. But you just cover the gaps combination of borrowing, bonds, and reducing from your deficit. And so we have been ahead of projections in part because of the increase in the—in the—in the price of oil as well as the amount of oil being produced.
But that doesn’t change what the—what the objective is. The objective is to go full speed ahead with the reform plan and the objective is to not let any changes in the price of oil have an impact on us. Whether the price goes down, whether the price goes up, we have to go through this process in order to achieve our objectives.
COLEMAN: I’d like to turn now to our members and take questions from you. If you could, please, stand, wait for the microphone, state your name and affiliation, and just a reminder that this is on the record.
We’ll start in the back—this woman right here. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi, the National newspaper.
Your Excellency, I wanted to ask you about Iraq. We saw an opening up of relationships with Iraq. But things seem to have slowed down. Is it a wait and see with what happens regarding the government and how much of that is part of the wider regional push in facing off with Iran? Thank you.
AL-JUBEIR: Yeah. No, there hasn’t been a backing off. Quite the contrary. We’re moving forward very robustly in our relationship with Iraq. We have now—we have more frequent travel between ministers from Saudi Arabia to Iraq and from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. We set up a consultative council between the two countries that includes more than ten different ministries.
We have increased investments in Iraq. We are looking at more investment in Iraqi infrastructure. We have—we have—we’re trying to—we have opened up the border crossing with Iraq. We have started commercial airline business between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. So we—the relationship in the last year and a half has grown by leaps and bounds. Trade between our countries is exploding. We are looking at more ways of improving this relationship.
We have had virtually all of Iraq’s leaders come to Saudi Arabia and we have, I think, what you—what may be confusing people is Iraq has gone through an election and then Iraq is in the process of forming a new government, and so the focus tends to be on that rather than on the—on the—on the other issues.
We’re committed to having the best ties with Iraq. Iraq is an Arab country with a rich history. Iraq is an important part of our history in terms of the Abbasid dynasty and it’s a neighbor of ours. We have geographic links with Iraq. We have tribal links with Iraq. We have familial links with Iraq. We’ve had many, many people from the Arabian Peninsula migrate to Iraq over the centuries and many of them have come back and become among our merchant elite, and we have a lot of people from Iraq who have moved to Saudi Arabia.
So it’s a very, very strong relationship. We—that was complicated by a military dictatorship that was not very friendly to us. But on the people-to-people level, the relations with Iraq are as strong as they are with any of the other Gulf States. And so we are committed to having the best ties with Iraq and we look forward to continuing to build this relationship.
COLEMAN: Right here. Roland.
Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, my name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been in the U.S. government a couple of times.
Could you say a few words about the falling out, on the one hand, of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Qatar on the other? Are you moving toward a resolution of that situation?
AL-JUBEIR: It’s not a falling out. It’s just we don’t want to have anything to do with them. (Laughter.) The Qataris, since the mid-’90s, have been sponsoring radicals. They have been inciting people. They have become a base for the leadership for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood, you have to keep in mind, is the—is what begot us Takfir wal-Hijra which begot us al-Qaeda which begot us Al-Nusra.
The Qataris allow their senior religious clerics to go on television and justify suicide bombings. That’s not acceptable. The Qataris harbor and shelter terrorists. That’s not acceptable. And, nationally, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2000 entered Saudi Arabia on a Qatari passport. We captured al-Qaeda types coming in to Saudi Arabia with Qatari passports. The Qataris know this. The Americans know this. The world knows this.
The Qataris are funding dissidents in the Emirates and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait in order to cause problems for those governments and to create instability. Why would you do this? The Qataris pay ransom to terrorist groups, including $500 million to Hezbollah in Iraq, $50 million to Qassem Soleimani, according to text messages between the Qatari ambassador to Iraq and the foreign minister of Iraq, including I don’t know how much to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is not acceptable.
If we gave $1 to Hezbollah in Iraq, we’d be sued in a court down the street. And so the Qataris use their media platforms to spread hate. The Qataris send weapons to al-Qaeda-affiliated militias in Libya. The Qatari emir was conniving with Gaddafi on how to overthrow Saudi Arabia. The Qataris connected Gaddafi with a Saudi dissident in London who they fund, who connected the Libyans with this group in Mecca with the objective of assassinating the then crown prince, later king, of Saudi Arabia. Is this acceptable?
We have phone conversations that the Libyans gave us after they overthrew Gaddafi where the then emir of Qatar is telling Gaddafi how he’s recruiting princes and tribal leaders and military officers and members of the royal family to cause mischief and destabilize Saudi Arabia, and predicted that within ten years there would be no royal family in Saudi Arabia.
Is this acceptable? They do the same thing in Bahrain and in Kuwait and in the Emirates. So in 2012, we cut off relations with them—the same countries—and a year later they came back and agreed that they will end all of this nonsense and they signed an agreement, and nothing happened.
So this time, we said, you know what—we’re not going to deal with you until—unless you change we will not allow you. There’s a list of terror financiers that the U.S. puts out, the U.N. puts out, and a number of them are living openly in Qatar raising money and giving it to bad people. Is this acceptable? It shouldn’t be. Why do the Qataris get away with it? Because I think people see a young country, young leadership. They buy fancy buildings. They have a nice airline, and they think, wow, these guys are really modern.
But we have to deal with the dark side that I just explained. And so that’s why we said until, unless you change, we’re not going to deal with you. Now, what happened since we took this action? They signed an MOU with the U.S. on terror financing that they had refused to sign before. They changed their laws to allow the introduction of evidence provided by a foreign government. They reduced their support for Hamas, which opened the door for reconciliation among the Palestinians. All of these are good things.
Now we’re waiting for them to continue to implement all the things that they promised to implement. They refuse to engage in a dialogue about implementing these issues and we refuse to talk to them. And so, for us—and we’ve said this to them—we’ve taken the steps that we took. No dealing with Qatar. You can’t overfly our airspace. You can’t import things from our market. You—we will not—the military cooperation is still ongoing because that’s a GCC issue and with the U.S. so we do that.
But the other stuff is all frozen until they change, and I hope they change. And if they don’t change, we’re patient people. We’ll wait for ten, fifteen, twenty years, fifty years. How long did it take you with Castro in Cuba? We can do the same with Qatar. We have no issue. It would be nice of them if they acknowledge that they have a problem and then they can fix the problem, and the problem with the Qataris is they’re still in denial and we need to move them from denial to introspection so they can fix the problem.
We have no hostility towards Qatar. We just vehemently oppose their behavior, which is very dangerous to us and has endangered our citizens and has endangered our security, and that’s why we took the steps we took.
COLEMAN: Ambassador Indyk.
Q: Martin Indyk, Council on Foreign Relations.
AL-JUBEIR: Hi, Martin.
Q: Adel, it’s very good to see you here.
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you.
Q: I wonder if you could do a kind of balance sheet for us of how the Iranians are doing in terms of their efforts to establish their hegemony in the region. They seem to be, notwithstanding all your efforts, more ensconced in Yemen. They seem to be well on their way to establishing a pro-Iranian government in Iraq. In Syria, despite all the efforts, they seem to be well entrenched there as well and, of course, in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
So I wonder how you see it from Riyadh, whether the efforts to contain and pressure them are actually working yet.
AL-JUBEIR: I have no doubt that they—that they’re working and that they will continue to work. In Yemen, they’re losing. In Iraq, their position is not what it was a few years ago. In Syria, over the long run they will lose, and in Lebanon, Hezbollah is going to change. No doubt about it. The Iranians are going to face tremendous pressure—economic pressure and political pressure—as a consequence of the sanctions that are being placed on them.
We see their currency dropping incredibly. We see inflation up tremendously. We see budget deficits. We see an inability to sell oil and we see rising discontent inside Iran. That’s not a nice picture.
If you go beyond the Middle East, the Iranians—the Iranian position in Africa is a skeleton of what it was three or four years ago. Iran is isolated in the Islamic world. Their position in places like Bangladesh and Malaysia and Indonesia a fraction of what it was three years ago.
And so I think the pressures are tightening. In the Middle East, like I said, you have the four spots. We’re dealing with it. And it took them thirty-five years or so to entrench themselves. We will work on pushing them back and I have no doubt that in the end we will succeed. The Iranian position is not sustainable.
You have two visions for the Middle East. You have a vision of light and progress and modality and moderation and innovation and taking care of your people, and you have the vision of darkness, which is about sectarianism and terrorism and murder and domination, and that’s the Iranian model. It will not prevail over the long run. It just—history shows us that that model is doomed to failure and I have no doubt the same will happen to Iran and I hope that Iran can have a government that is responsible, that is a member of the community of nations in good standing so that the Iranian people, who have a great history and a great past, can lead normal lives.
COLEMAN: Down here.
Q: Thank you. Raghida Dergham, Beirut Institute.
On the short term—immediate term—how do you expect Iran to react to the pressures by the administration, particularly in Yemen and Syria? Some people are afraid of revenge. Some people are afraid that they are not going to curb back their expansionism but, in fact, you know, use other methods. And what conversation are you having with the Russians in terms of using their influence with the Iranians to pull back in Syria and in Yemen in particular? Do you have any leverage with the Russians?
AL-JUBEIR: On—the Iranians are already doing all the things you’re saying. A hundred and ninety-seven ballistic missiles launched at Saudi Arabia, manufactured in Iran, operated by Hezbollah—how much—what else can you do more than this? Trying to destabilize countries. Every day we—people are captured trying to send explosives and weapons into Bahrain. They’re trying to recruit citizens in order to commit terrorist attacks. I mean, they’re threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. OK. What else can the Iranians do?
And if we’re going to base our policy based on fear of what the Iranians may or may not do, they’re already doing all the bad stuff and they have been for thirty-five years and they’ve been relentless, and, if anything, it’s accelerated, not slowed down, and especially after the signing of the JPCOA (sic; JCPOA). I can’t—I haven’t read about one road, one hospital, one school that Iran built since they had access to billions of dollars. But I have seen missiles go to the Houthis, explosives smuggled into Bahrain, and money going to fund the war in Syria, at the expense of the Iranian people.
So the issue is Iran is responsible for the position it’s in. Iran is the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. Iran is the one that is trying to dominate the region. Iran is the one that is sending its Quds Forces and Revolutionary Guards into other countries to destabilize them, and that has to stop. That has to stop.
Now, with regard to Russia, we have conversations with Russia. We don’t talk to people about talking to the Iranians. Our view is Iran has no role in the Arab world. Our position is that Iran has no role in the Arab world other than to get out. And with Russia, our conversations are about the general situation in the region and it’s about moving Syria towards a political process. It’s about our common interests in terms of energy. It’s about the peace process. It’s about fighting extremism and terrorism. It’s about the unacceptability of interfering in the affairs of other countries. So we have a good dialogue with Russia on this.
And I think that in the long run in Syria the Iranian position is not tenable, and so we’re working in that direction.
COLEMAN: Back here. The woman here.
Q: Thank you for coming to speak today.
AL-JUBEIR: You’re welcome.
Q: Brooke Goldstein of the Lawfare Project.
You mentioned that Saudi Arabia was going to supplement the funding to UNRWA. So I’m wondering what, if anything, are you doing to ensure that the funding isn’t going towards, you know, producing textbooks that teach martyrdom or funding Hamas, who has come in through al-Qudlah (ph)/al-Islamiya and recruited children? Because that was the primary reason why we did cut our funding. And also, if you could speak a little bit about the hate education that’s been reported about by Freedom House and by Human Rights Watch about Saudi textbooks as well.
AL-JUBEIR: Yes. On UNRWA, we are talking to our partners—the other donors of UNRWA—about restructuring how the operations of UNRWA so we can focus on the essential items, because the Palestinian refugee population is going to grow and which means expenses are going to need to increase, and we want to look at the programs that are essential and the programs that are—that contribute to the well-being of the Palestinian people and focus on those. So this issue, I believe, will be dealt with.
In terms of the hate speech in Saudi Arabia, I believe that’s a legacy issue. Not I believe; I know it’s a legacy issue. We have revamped our educational system over the last fifteen years three times. We have introduced new teaching methods. We have new textbooks. We have new curriculums. We teach a national baccalaureate. We have reeducated public school teachers and private school teachers. And we have adopted the policy of zero tolerance, whether it’s in the schools or whether it’s in the mosques. But people still go back to issues in the past and say, oh, it’s still continuing.
But we are dealing with this very firmly. You cannot have a normal country if you have extremism. That’s why the openness of our society, the empowerment of women, the empowerment of youth, introducing recreation, introducing entertainment, introducing openness, introducing tourism, promoting our historic sites. All of this is part of the process of having people in Saudi Arabia—normal people living normal lives. You can’t have this if you’re promoting extremism or if you allow any kind of extremism to take place.
We have purged imams from our mosques, several thousand of them, and we’ve made it very clear that our policy on extremism is zero. We have jailed a number of Islamist—a number of so-called Islamic scholars and we were attacked by the very same people who criticize us, like Freedom House. Oh, my god, you’re taking away their freedom of speech. OK. Explain to me—when they speak you tell us they’re preaching hate. When we put them in jail, you tell us, why did you stop them from preaching—you took away their freedom of speech.
It’s a damned if we do, damned if we don’t situation. Which one do you want to do? And but our view is—our policy is zero tolerance. We will not allow anyone to preach extremism or hate because that undercuts our ability to move our country forward and improve the standard of living for our people.
COLEMAN: Right here.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Minister. Zach Virden (ph), Princeton University.
Over the last three years, there’s been a remarkable surge in Gulf State engagement across the Red Sea and into the Horn of Africa and the region, more broadly, with political, economic, strategic impact. Could you comment on both the opportunities, which we’ve already seen, but also the risks as some of the aforementioned rivalries play out on a wider chessboard? Thank you.
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you. The—let me take a step back. People focus on the conflicts in the region. We have been looking at the Red Sea and we see great opportunity. We worry about the environmental impact because what happens on one side of the Red Sea can impact the other side, which is us.
We have some of the most fragile and beautiful corals in the Red Sea along our coast and we don’t want to see them disappear. We want to build tourism destinations there but on less than twenty percent, and keep the other pristine so that we maintain the environment. So we have an environmental need to work together.
As we develop the Red Sea, especially in the north, it’s important that that development be aligned with what Jordan does, with what Egypt does, with what Sudan does, so that we don’t—we don’t have either congestion or we have something that benefits all of us in the Red Sea. So there’s that element. There’s an economic element that I just mentioned.
There’s a security element—smuggling, whether it’s drugs, whether it’s human trafficking—that is important—and piracy issues, of course. So unless we work on this cooperatively, it’s not—if we work on it cooperatively, we all benefit. If we don't, we all lose. And so we proceeded to try to work on bridging the divide between Eritrea and Ethiopia and we were able to succeed in getting them to sign a peace agreement after twenty years of conflict.
We worked on bringing together the president of Djibouti with the president of Eritrea in a historic meeting after ten years of boycotting. So that opens the door for reducing the conflict. We worked with Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia on seeing how they can work together in order to help stabilize the situation in Somalia.
So that’s still a work in progress, and our sense is if we end these conflicts the economic opportunities are tremendous, whether it’s in the field of agriculture, whether in the field of power generation, whether in the field of infrastructure, and we all stand to benefit. It helps us with our food security. It helps us with our investments. It helps us with calm in the region. It helps us with all the criminal elements—aspects that take place, especially towards the southern part of the Red Sea.
We have a lot of people who get trafficked across the Bab al-Mandab into Yemen and then they smuggle them into Saudi Arabia. And so that’s a concern of us that we want to—we have concern about radicalization in the Horn of Africa because of the instability in Somalia. So we want that resolved.
So we’ve now—we’re moving towards a more cooperative approach and we’re talking to the other countries along the Red Sea and we’re talking to our friends in the Gulf to see how all of us can move this region from conflict to stability and then move it towards development. We all benefit if this happens. So that’s actually one of the bright spots in our region.
Q: Yes. Sy Sternberg, New York Life.
You spoke earlier today about the Palestinian-Israeli solution requires two states for two people. How, if that’s the case, can you reconcile the situation of right of return where the Palestinians return to Israeli side of the border as opposed to the Palestinian side of the border, creating a de facto second Palestinian state?
AL-JUBEIR: I believe the right of return was dealt with at—to some extent at Camp David in 2000 and a few weeks later at the Taba negotiations in 2002. The thinking was that Palestinians would have Palestinian passports and they have a right to return to the state of Palestine or go wherever else.
There would be a fund set up to pay compensation and, if my memory is correct, a certain number who were born in Palestine before the state of Israel was established can go back to their homes and that number was—I don’t know what their final range was—thirty, forty, seventy thousand, one hundred thousand over a number of years, and that’s how you—that’s how you deal with the right of return and I think that’s the understanding that the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to at Taba.
The sticking point was the issue of acknowledgement of guilt. I don’t know what the exact term called. I’m getting old so my memory is fading. But it was the issue of acknowledging wrongdoing. And then the Israelis wanted an acknowledgment that something was also done wrong to the Jewish populations who left Arab countries. And the—then there was—it was some esoteric argument.
But the formula for the right of return, I think people have made too big an issue out of it. It’s a matter of principle, but it’s not about this idea that six million Palestinians will go to the state of Israel.
Q: Henry Siegman.
AL-JUBEIR: I know you.
Q: Good to see you back here.
On my way here to this meeting, I caught a news flash on my telephone that at the United Nations the—our president said to Bibi—told Bibi that he is back now in his own thinking that a two-state solution is necessary and that Israel will have to make certain accommodations to that.
So my question to you is since the Kushner team has been consulting with your own leadership probably more so than any other leadership in the area, is this something that you think in terms of your take on the president’s thinking on this subject? Is this something that we should take as seriously as all of his other pronouncements or should we take it seriously?
AL-JUBEIR: I mean, I think anything the president—anything that a president says is serious. The administration has always said if the two parties want a two-state solution we’re for it, and then—and now the president today said that he’s in favor of a two-state solution. I think everybody is. The issue really is how do we move towards it and how do we come up with a package that is—that is realistic and that has a high probability of success.
As I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, the formula, we know, it’s in the marketing and it’s in the providing cover for both sides to make the painful decision to move towards peace. And our hope is that—and we’re prepared to play a role in this. But, ultimately, the two sides have to make that decision.
And so I—the president expressing his support for a two-state solution I think is a positive statement.
COLEMAN: We are, sadly, about out of time right now. So I apologize for those questions I couldn’t get to, and I just want to say thank you so much to Ambassador al-Jubeir, and I think it’s obvious why he’s considered to be one of Saudi Arabia’s great diplomatic assets.
So thank you for speaking with us.
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you. My pleasure.
COLEMAN: So I will—(inaudible).
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.)