Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia
President, Council on Foreign Relations
For further reading, please see the CFR In Brief “Trump’s Iran-Saudi Arabia Dilemma” by Philip H. Gordon, the CFR blog post “Scale and Nature of Attacks on Saudi Oil Makes This One Different” by Amy M. Jaffe, and the CFR quiz “See How Much You Know About Saudi Arabia.”
HAASS: Well, good afternoon. Welcome or welcome back to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard Haass, and I want to welcome you all to this meeting with Adel al-Jubeir, who, as I expect you all know, is the minister of state for foreign affairs for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has been foreign minister, he’s been ambassador to the United States, he was our foreign affairs advisor to the royal court. Most important, he was a visiting diplomatic fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 1994 to 1995 and got his master’s in international relations from Georgetown.
Mr. Minister, thank you for being here.
AL-JUBEIR: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
HAASS: He and I will have a conversation. It’s on the record, so as we say anything you say can and will certainly be cited. And then after about twenty-five minutes or so I’ll open it up to our members. And I do the softballs, they do the—they do the tough questioning. I also want to welcome Princess Reema, the new ambassador from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States. It’s good to have you with us today. It’s good to have you in the United States.
OK. Let’s start with current events, sir, if I may. Has your government reached a finding on the responsibility for the attack on your oil facility? Are you prepared to say with confidence it was Iran? Or are you not prepared to go there yet?
AL-JUBEIR: We believe that Iran is responsible for the attack because the equipment is Iranian equipment. We know that it didn’t come from the south. We know it because of the range of the equipment. We believe it came from the north—or, we’re certain it came from the north. And what we’re doing now is investigating to locate the actual launch site. And we have asked the United Nations to send experts to Saudi Arabia. They’re in the kingdom now. Other countries have sent experts to Saudi Arabia. They’re in the kingdom now. And once their conclusions are—once the investigation is complete and we will pin the blame. But we believe that Iran was responsible because these were Iranian weapons.
HAASS: Can everybody near in the back? Is it loud enough? OK, it is. OK, good.
I want to follow up on that, when you say it’s Iran, do you have any doubts or questions about who in Iran might have authorized an attack such as this, given your reading of their political system? Or do you think—well, I won’t say what I think. Have you reached any conclusions on that, or not?
AL-JUBEIR: Well, I think we have some sense of it, but I can’t really talk about the internal debates of the Iranian government. How they make—how they arrive at decisions is their business. The problem is they arrive at decisions that are aggressive. They arrive at decisions that are destabilizing. And they arrive at decisions that are dangerous.
HAASS: Now, your government has not retaliated in any way, certainly hasn’t retaliated physically, after you’ve been attacked. Why not? Why wouldn’t the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after being attacked, once you’re confident who did it, why wouldn’t you respond directly with military force against Iran?
AL-JUBEIR: We want to make sure that we avoid war at all costs, but we’re not going to sit there with our hands tied while the Iranians continue to attack us. We want to make sure that we know exactly what happened, exactly where it came from. We want to organize international support. And we want to look at all of our options—diplomatic options, economic options, and military options—and then make a decision and move in a very deliberate and a very effective manner. We were talking to our allies in the U.S. and in Europe. We’re looking at various options. But ultimately our objective is to come to the conclusion of the investigation, make it crystal clear to the world that this is what happened, and this is where it emanated from, and then build the case for whatever actions we decide to take.
HAASS: Thirty years ago when Princess Reema’s father was in an embassy that you later served in.
AL-JUBEIR: No, I served at the time with him.
HAASS: Oh, you were there at that time? I was also serving at the time at the White House. And my boss at the time, President Bush 41, when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq memorably said: This will not stand. And the United States then proceeded to send more than half a million soldiers to your part of the world, in part to defend the kingdom, ultimately to roll back Iraqi aggression. Whatever else it is this administration has done it is, shall we say, considerably short of a this will not stand pronouncement and Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Does that raise questions in your mind, in your government’s mind, about what you can expect from the United States as a partner and as an ally?
AL-JUBEIR: I believe the administration has been very clear about this will not stand, that this is an act of war, this is how they described it. The U.S. is sending forces to Saudi Arabia and equipment to reinforce our defenses in the eastern province. The U.S. is consulting with its allies in Europe in order to build a case for this. We saw the statements by the E3 countries yesterday, Italy—I mean, sorry—France, Germany and the U.K., which pinned the blame on Iran and called for steps to be taken against Iran. This is a very significant step forward in terms of the European position. And we continue to work with our allies and consult with them in order to have options available when the time comes to make decisions.
HAASS: Today in his—this morning, in his speech at the United Nations, President Trump addressed Iran at some length; spent several minutes of his speech. I’ll characterize it. I can’t quote it. I don’t have it in front of me. But it was aimed very directly at the Iranian leadership.
And one of the things it did not do was articulate any new diplomatic position; talked about a willingness in principle to meet with the Iranians but, for example, did not say we would be interested in negotiating agreement that went beyond the 2015 JCPOA.
Are you comfortable with the U.S. position as articulated? Or, in order to in part perhaps reduce the chance of war, would you like us to articulate a diplomatic proposition that at least would be the basis of negotiations with Iran?
AL-JUBEIR: I think—I don’t know who wrote the speech, but I listened to it. I thought it was a fairly comprehensive speech. But with regards to Iran, there is no doubt that the JCPOA was a weak deal, that it needed to be amended, that the sunset provision that limits the amount of Iran—uranium that Iran can enrich, those limits are off by 2025. That must be amended.
The other part has to do with the inspections. They have to be more robust. They have to include nondeclared sites. Every time we discovered a secret Iranian nuclear program, it was at a secret site that’s not declared. So it has to be 24/7 inspections all over the country. That’s how you fix the JCPOA.
We also believe that the Iran problem has a second and a third element to it. The second element has to do with Iran’s ballistic-missile program, which is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. They build ballistic missiles and give it to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis. That’s not acceptable.
And the third leg of the Iran issue is Iran’s support for terrorism and interferes in the affairs of other countries. The administration and we strongly agree that that should be the objective—no nukes for Iran under any scenario whatsoever, no missiles, and no terrorism and interference in the affairs of other countries. We agree on this. The Europeans are now coming around to agreeing that this should be the objective.
Where we, meaning the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, may have differences with the Europeans has to do with the methodology for going about doing it. We believe that appeasement does not work with Iran. We believe when Europe didn’t take a strong position after the attacks against the pipelines and after the attacks against the oilfield in Shaybah that this emboldened and encouraged Iran.
We believe that trying to set up a parallel system to SWIFT for Iran to trade with Europe emboldens Iran, even though that system is not going to work, because no company in Europe with more than thirty employees is going to use it because of U.S. sanctions. No bank in Europe is going to use it because of U.S. sanctions. So we made that very clear to our European friends. And we believe that trying to offer Iran loans for $15 billion emboldens them rather than not.
So our position is—with the whole world is we have to be firm with Iran. We have to make it clear to them that the policies they’re embarked upon will not succeed and there will be pushback. And then we have to come up with options on how we increase the pressure on the Iranians.
So I’m not worried about the position of the administration because it’s completely aligned with our position. Or I should say our position is completely aligned with the U.S. position. There may be differences in how we articulate it, but the objectives are the same, and working very closely together in order to move this forward and to persuade allies and friendly countries to come along with us.
HAASS: Let me just push you one more time on this. The criticism of the policy you’ve just articulated is not that it wouldn’t be desirable but it’s unachievable, that you can’t get Iran to agree to that. And the danger then is we’ll see continued Iranian actions, such as the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. We will see gradual Iranian breakout of the 2015 agreement, which, even if flawed, one could argue was certainly better than nothing. And it dramatically increases the chance of a wider war.
Wouldn’t you rather have—I’ll just ask, why not introduce a diplomatic proposal that, even if it didn’t do everything you wanted, still did some of those things? Can you imagine a proposal that would say we will give you a degree of sanctions relief in exchange for, for example, longer sunset provisions, maybe the capture of missiles?
But in the—one last part—in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had arms-control agreements. We didn’t solve or resolve all of our geopolitical competition around the world. Sometimes agreements do some things but not everything. Why not an agreement with Iran that does some things but not everything?
AL-JUBEIR: I believe that the Trump administration put on the table negotiations with Iran and threatened Iran that if Iran didn’t come to the negotiating table to work out the flaws in the JCPOA, and to work out the issues that I outlined before, that Iran would be facing sanctions. Iran dragged its feet for more than a year. And then the president pulled out of the JCPOA—and we supported that move—and then the sanctions were imposed, and Iran—the Iranian economy took a nosedive, and the Iranians now are saying we would only come to the negotiating table if you remove the sanctions. Well, you didn’t come when there were sanctions, so now—when there were—when there were no sanctions, which means you are not serious. Now you are saying remove the sanctions so you can obfuscate, delay, and try to drag this out for as long as possible without coming to the table.
The logic of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War was you were dealing with two nation-states that were rational actors. With Iran, I don’t know if Iran is a revolution or a nation-state. If it’s a revolution, it’s emotional, and it’s not a rational actor, and you can’t deal with them. They are obsessed with trying to restore the Persian Empire and trying to take over the region. Their constitution calls for the export of the revolution. Khomeini’s will calls for the destruction of the Saudi state. They believe that every Shiite belongs to them, they don’t respect the sovereignty of nations, so that’s the type of irrational actor we’re dealing with.
Imagine if the Soviet Union—if Trotsky, with his view of permanent revolution, had prevailed over Lenin, with his view of revolution in one country—would the European powers have stood for it while the Soviet Union was embarking on trying to export communism to the rest of the world? Of course not.
So Iran has to decide: Are you a revolution or are you a nation-state?
HAASS: Well, we did have a relationship with the Soviet Union while they were trying to export communism around the world, but we won’t—we won’t go there.
We’ll go to the more immediate, less historical question of Yemen. War has been going on for, what, four or so years now, as best I can tell—tell me if I’m wrong. It doesn’t seem parked to be—to resolve. The humanitarian cost has been enormous. Your UAE partners have essentially opted out. What’s the future for Saudi Arabia and Yemen?
AL-JUBEIR: I think we have to keep in mind that we didn’t start this war. We entered it nine months after it began, and we did so in order to prevent a radical group allied with Hezbollah in Iran from taking over a strategically important country. We have been very careful in terms of our targeting.
Unfortunately we took a beating in the media. The Houthis lay siege on towns and villages, people starve, and we get blamed. The Houthis lobbed 260 missiles at Saudi Arabia as well as three hundred missiles inside Yemen randomly at civilians; we get blamed. The Houthis steal humanitarian assistance; we get blamed. The Houthis stopped the World Health Organization from distributing cholera vaccine that we paid for, and we get blamed for cholera outbreaks.
But anyway, put that aside. We have supported every agreement to reach a political settlement. The Houthis have reneged on every agreement they signed by not implementing that agreement. We’re still working with the U.N. envoy. We’re working with the southerners and the central government in order to bring about reconciliation. We’re optimistic that this will happen fairly soon. I would imagine—I don’t want to give a date because any time you give a date in Yemen you are off. But we are optimistic.
We are hopeful that the U.N. envoy will be able to have some set of confidence-building measures that can be implemented and that we can move Yemen towards a better place. We have provided $14 billion in assistance to Yemen since the conflict began—humanitarian assistance. We will continue to provide more assistance. We are looking at reconstruction, and we’ve already begun the reconstruction process in Yemen.
So our objective is to make sure that we work on a political process, that we make it clear to the Houthis that this is not winnable militarily, that they have a chance to be part of the political process, and they will benefit ultimately because of the reconstruction and because of the peace that will stay in Yemen. The objective is a unified Yemen, and the objective is a Yemen in which Iran has no role.
HAASS: Do you believe that what the UAE did will make it more difficult to achieve the outcome you want? Are you disappointed with your partner?
AL-JUBEIR: I think the UAE has had more soldiers in Yemen than we have. There is hardly a family in the UAE that didn’t have one of its sons killed or wounded in Yemen, so it has been a big domestic issue for them.
The UAE has—it was thinking about redeploying and reducing its footprint, and they’ve been planning this for a year. When that happened, the southern forces—or one of the southern forces saw an opportunity to take over government buildings in Aden. We and the UAE worked on getting them out of those buildings. And then we and the UAE are working with the Yemeni government to try to restructure their own forces. So I don’t see it as them abandoning Yemen.
HAASS: I want to raise the question of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, and I want to read you two quotes from the two leading Democratic candidates. One is from former Vice President Biden, and I quote: “I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Trump has issued Saudi Arabia a dangerous blank check. Saudi Arabia has used it to extend the war in Yemen. That has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, pursue reckless foreign policy fights and repress its own people.” And then from Senator Elizabeth Warren, and I quote, “Saudi Arabia has increasingly pursued a regional and international agenda that does not align with U.S. interests. It’s time to reorient our policy in the region away from a reflexive embrace of the Saudi regime and toward one that focuses on U.S. interests.” Are you in danger of losing the Democratic Party and turning the U.S.-Saudi relationship into really a Republican-Saudi relationship?
HAASS: No. Our relationship has been bipartisan since the time King Abdul-Aziz met with Roosevelt in—Valentine’s Day, 1945, at the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. It’s survived the coming and going and breaking of many storms. Every decade it gets stronger and broader and deeper, because our interests are so aligned.
With all due respect to Senator—to Vice President Biden, is the answer of stopping Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen sending twenty thousand American troops to protect the borders of Saudi Arabia and 25 percent of the world’s oil, and the American taxpayer gets to pay for it? Is it in America’s interest to have American forces fighting against Iranian-backed militias in Yemen? We’re doing it. We should be supported, not criticized.
And so we—people have been telling us for years if not decades, you are wealthy, you are powerful, you should take over leadership in the Middle East and you should deal with problems rather than, quote-unquote, “hold America’s coattails while America goes to war.” Now that we’re leading, people are saying, what are you doing? What are you doing? So if you want us to lead, support us. And if you want to lead, by all means, go ahead. We’ll support you.
The war in Yemen is a terrible situation that we didn’t bring on, that we were—we went in to defend Yemen. The fact that it lasted four years is tragic, but your war in Afghanistan lasted almost nineteen years. Your war against al-Qaeda in Syria lasted five or six years. Wars are messy and wars take time, and we’re not a superpower. We’re a developing country, leading a coalition of developing countries. You’re a superpower, leading a global coalition of more than sixty countries and you’ve had a hard time with it. So let’s be equal, or let’s be balanced, in leveling our criticism with regards to things like this. That’s one.
With regards to the comment by Elizabeth Warren that we have—our interests are not aligned, absolutely not. We are aligned in terms of containing Iran, we are aligned in terms of stabilizing Iraq, we are aligned in terms of ending the conflict in Syria, we are aligned in terms of pushing back against Hezbollah in Lebanon, we are aligned in terms of trying to bring peace between Israelis and Arabs, we are aligned in terms of supporting Egypt, we are aligned in supporting Sudan, we are aligned in stabilizing the Red Sea region, we are aligned in fighting the G-5—the Boko Haram of the G-5 countries, we are aligned in trying to stabilize Libya, we are aligned in trying to stabilize Afghanistan, we are aligned in trying to calm the tensions between Pakistan and India, we are aligned in terms of balancing oil markets, we are aligned in terms of balancing financial markets, we are aligned in terms of promoting trade. This is a hugely important relationship that the United States has with very, very few countries.
And so for people to use us in terms of campaigns is one thing. I mean, I’ve been in the U.S. since I was 16. I’ve seen every presidential election since Ronald Reagan was elected, and it seems to me that what happens in a campaign doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens once people are in office. And in campaigns, Prince Bandar used to call it the silly season. So people say lots of things, and you just have to deal with it. But when they come into office, and they see the reality of the relationship and the importance of the relationship, then the attitude becomes much more measured.
HAASS: So let me raise three areas where I’m unpersuaded our interests are aligned and then after we’ll open it up.
The first is on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This administration has moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. It has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; it has talked about tabling a peace plan but is yet to table one after two-and-a-half years. We’ll see what happens with this latest interregnum in Israeli politics. One of the conceivable outcomes, though, is you could have a government led by the present prime minister in which additional annexations could take place. Under those—under all these circumstances, where is the alignment between the United States and Saudi Arabia, other than, yes, in principle we want to see peace but in practice do we really have alignment?
AL-JUBEIR: Yes, I think we have alignment in the sense of wanting to bring an end to this conflict that is just, that leads to a two-state solution, that leads to ’67 borders, with minor agreed-to adjustments, that basically reflects the Arab peace initiative. Now, if people in the U.S.—and I think the objective here is that we both want to solve this conflict. If the administration has different views, we will make sure that they know our views, as we have. We will make sure that we will tell them the dangers of some of the actions. As friends and allies, that’s what we do.
But the fact—what I meant by “we are aligned” is that we both have been for a long time, since—the Madrid conference would not have happened without Saudi Arabia working with the United States. The Oslo agreements, we blessed it. We worked on removing the secondary and tertiary boycotts in order to build confidence between Israel and the Arab world. and we worked with the Clinton administration to try to move this process forward. So this is what I mean by we engage with each other in order to find a resolution to this conflict. If we believe that something is not going to work, we will make it very clear to our partners in Washington.
HAASS: Another area where I’d say our interests are not aligned are obviously on the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. And the question there is where do things stand in terms of the investigation into this? The legal, and then punishment of those responsible? What reason do Americans have to believe that something like this wouldn’t happen again tomorrow?
AL-JUBEIR: I wouldn’t say that our interests are not aligned, because it implies that we killed him. We didn’t kill him. He was murdered by agents of the Saudi government without authorization, without permission. We launched an investigation. We have—charges were filed against eleven individuals. Five of them are facing the death penalty. The trials began in January. They’re ongoing. We have observers from the P-5 countries, plus Turkey, plus Saudi NGOs witnessing the trials. The investigation is still ongoing. What will happen is—and we have put in place, reviewed our procedures for our security services to put in place, mechanisms and procedures to prevent this from happening again. This is what countries do.
When Oliver North was involved with Iran-Contra, Reagan didn’t know about it. When Abu Ghraib happened, Don Rumsfeld didn’t know about it. What did the U.S. government do? It investigated. It charged people responsible. It punished them. It put in place mechanisms to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. This is how governments react. And so this is what we’re doing. I tell people, wait until the trial is over and the judgements are out, then judge the process. But in this case we’re guilty when the principle is innocent until found guilty. So I don’t see—I think when these trials are over, and people see what happened, I think they will say that Saudi Arabia did the right thing.
HAASS: A third area of—oh, let’s be clear, I expect there may be some follow up in these and other areas, I just want to put your various issues on the proverbial table here, is Qatar, or—(changes pronunciation)—Qatar if you prefer, where you have had a policy of diplomatic isolation. The United States seems to be quite supportive of it, seems to have moved away. You began talking about Iran. Doesn’t Saudi Arabia have bigger fish to fry? And why would it continue to have a policy of isolating Qatar?
AL-JUBEIR: Because Qatar continues to fund extremists and terrorists and continues to involve itself in our internal affairs. Last year I was here and explained to people the situation with Qatar. Allowing clerics to go on television and justify suicide bombings is not acceptable. Allowing people to spread hate is not acceptable. Funding people in other countries who spread these ideas is not acceptable. Using your media in order to cause mischief in our country is not acceptable. Providing hundreds of millions of dollars toward Hashd al-Shaabi and Hezbollah in Lebanon in order to bring your hostages out is not acceptable.
So that’s the problem that we have with Qatar. Other than that, they’re a wonderful country. (Laughter.) They’re our neighbors. There are familiar ties. We have a common history. We have a common destiny. We know this. We know this very well. It’s just the policies that need to change. We can’t allow that policy to continue.
It started in 1996, when the emir’s father—deposed his father and took over the country. It continued. In 2012/2013, we withdrew our ambassadors. And the Qataris agreed that they will cease and desist, and they signed what is known as the Riyadh Agreement. For five years they didn’t implement it. And we finally said enough is enough. So when you decide you want to come over from the dark side, we’d be happy to embrace you.
HAASS: I want to come back—one last question before I open it up to our members about the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
For most of your career, the U.S.-Saudi relationship took place in a context of significant American energy dependence on your part of the world, including—not limited to your country, but in no small part Saudi Arabia. There was a readiness to use military force to intervene and so forth.
And now we’re at a time where the American energy picture has changed dramatically and where American—what’s the word?—appetite or support for foreign interventions is decidedly less, in no small part, arguably, because of, on one hand, problems here at home, in no small part because of the lack of results commensurate to costs of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
So when you look at the future, to what extent are you anticipating a future where the U.S.-Saudi relationship is simply less central to your security? And what does that mean? Does that mean greater self-sufficiency, greater autonomy for you? You know, I read the quotes of the Democrats. And you may be right; it may simply be politics, but maybe not. Polls suggest that what they’re saying is quite reflective.
To what extent do you see a future where you’re slightly more on your own? And what does that mean?
AL-JUBEIR: I think the oil issue, whether the U.S. is energy-independent or not, is not as important as the fact that oil is fungible. If you have a shortfall of oil in Asia, it’s going to hit you at the gas pump in the U.S. And so the centrality of Saudi Arabia and the oil markets will remain as long as the world is using oil. That’s one.
Number two, Saudi Arabia has tremendous soft power in terms of being the birthplace of Islam and the custodian of the two holy mosques. Saudi Arabia is the only country that can reach 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, and that’s critically important to the world.
Number three, I mentioned the—Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that has one of the largest financial reserves in the world
Number four, the issues I mentioned to you—Sahel countries, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, all of these—are critically important to the U.S. You have interests in all of those areas, and we are a strong partner of yours in trying to stabilize. That’s not going to change. I mean, I hope we can bring them—put out all these fires.
The issue of fighting terrorism and fighting extremism, we are your strongest partner in this. If you can tell me we’re going to win this war in two years, I’d give you a big hug. But this is going to be a generational struggle, and we will be fighting this battle for generations on the ideological level, on the financial level, and on the terrorist level in terms of armed forces.
So I don’t see a change. What I see is, in the United States, you have swings. You came out of the Vietnam War and you wanted isolation. You came out of World War I; you wanted isolation. Ronald Reagan comes in and America is active on the world stage. And so this is a period where twenty years of wars, $2 trillion of cost, nobody can underestimate the impact of it. But America’s role in the world is not about retreat. America’s role in the world is about engagement; not engagement for security’s sake, but engagement for opportunity’s sake—trade, investment, environmental issues. That’s what America is about.
And so I think this—what we see now is a reaction to the past fifteen or twenty years. And you’re a better student of American foreign policy than I am. And I think the pendulum is going to swing. The U.S.—this is the way it’s been for generations. And so I’m not worried about the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
In terms of Saudi Arabia being more on its own, it’s not so much being more on our own as much as it is being a more active partner in terms of solving issues in the region or solving issues in the world. And I think that’s a healthy thing for us and for the United States.
HAASS: I wanted to give you a chance to say that.
OK, let’s open it up to member questions. You know the drill. Raise your hand. Wait for the microphone. Let us know who you are, where you’re from. And let’s keep it as succinct as possible.
Mr. Gordon, we’ll begin with you.
Q: Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal.
Sir, one thing that’s striking about the recent—
AL-JUBEIR: We’ve known each other for twenty years and you call me sir? (Laughter.)
Q: One of the things that’s striking about the attack on the Saudi Aramco facility is that it was left largely undefended to the north, as you point out, which is where your main antagonist is. And the defenses apparently were oriented to the south, where the Houthis were. Why was that? What are you going to do about that? And if Saudi Arabia can’t defend its critical infrastructure, its oil facilities, or it desalinization plants, isn’t it the case that you don’t have a military recourse against Iran, and that your best approach is through some sort of diplomacy via the E3 or some other mechanism?
AL-JUBEIR: Yeah. I think I can’t comment on the what went wrong, if any, situation because I’m not a military person. But I can tell you that this is being looked at, to see how they were able to enter our air space and why they were not detected. It’s very difficult to detect small objects that fly at three hundred feet of altitude. I know that our air defense forces have been able to stop 260 ballistic missiles from reaching their targets. I know that they have been able to stop dozens and dozens, if not scores, of drones from coming into Saudi Arabia. And this is excellent work for the military. In this case, we have to study the consequences and see what can be done in order to deal with the potential of something like this in the—in the future.
All options—we’re looking at all options. I don’t believe that we’re keeping any option off the table, but we will be deliberate. We will consult extensively with our allies. And then we will decide what the best course of option is—what the best course forward is. Sorry, it’s been a long day.
Q: Elise Labott with Georgetown University.
Good to see you. I’m wondering, beyond changing Iran’s behavior, if you could lay out what your ultimate endgame is with Iran. I mean, you’ve heard President Obama say in the past that Saudi Arabia and Iran need to share the region. But what is it really? Is it regime change? Is it indefinite containment? You’ve said in the past that you don’t see that there’s any way to negotiate with Iran. So beyond changing the behavior, what’s your ideal scenario for a future where—I mean, geographically you do share the region. Thank you.
AL-JUBEIR: It is not our business to tell the Iranians what their government should be like or who their leaders should be. What we want is we want an Iran that acts as a nation-state, Iran that respects the sovereignty of nations, that respects international laws, that doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries. And then we will have an Iran that can be a good neighbor to us, and that doesn’t support terrorism. Then we will have an Iran that will be a good neighbor to us. We can trade. We can—we can be friends, because at the end of the day we’re neighbors. The Gulf separates us. They’ve been there for thousands of years. We’ve been there for thousands of years. We have no intention of leaving the neighborhood, and I doubt they have any either. So we need—but they need to behave like a good neighbor. That’s what we’re waiting for.
Since the Iranian revolution forty years ago, all we’ve seen from Iran is death and destruction. What we’ve seen is they blew up the American embassy in Beirut through their proxies Hezbollah. They blew up American Marines in Beirut International Airport through their proxy Hezbollah. They kidnapped and murdered American diplomats in Lebanon elsewhere. They attacked the Hajj in 1986. They blew up our embassy—or, attacked our embassy in Tehran. They assassinated our diplomats, three of them in Thailand and one, I believe, in Pakistan, and one in another location. They blew up Khobar Towers in 1996. They blew up the synagogue in Argentina I think in the late ’80s. They blew up buses in Europe. They assassinate people all over the place.
We have a list, you can see it on our foreign ministry website, more than seventy things that the Iranians have done. One after the other, after the other, after the other, after the other. It’s a consistent record of evil that’s got to stop. And the idea that by signing a deal that is substandard and not dealing with missiles and terrorism that the Iranians will get all this money, and then they’re going to say: This is really great, let’s be a normal country, I think was wishful thinking. The Iranians took money from the nuclear deal, and they used it to double down in Syria, and Yemen, and Iraq, and they increased the budgets for the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Forces. I personally have not read about any infrastructure project that Iran did since the nuclear deal. I haven’t heard of them building a university or a hospital. I haven’t seen Iran give one dollar in foreign assistance.
During the Iraq—the donor conference for Iraq that Kuwait held a few years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contributed $1.5 billion. I think something like twenty-five billion (dollars) was committed to support Iraq. Do you know how much Iran contributed or pledged? Zero. How much has Iran given to Yemen to support poverty and to support humanitarian assistance in Yemen? Zero. So change your policy. Become a good neighbor. Stop this nonsense of terrorism, implanting terrorist cells, assassinations, providing ballistic missiles to militias. Stop that, respect the sovereignty of nations, as I mentioned, and international law, and we’d love to be your best friends. Before the Iranian revolution we had the best relations with Iran. Saudis would go to Iran and visit, and Iranians come to Saudi Arabia. We had trade relations. But this all came to the end after the Khomeini revolution.
HAASS: But does that imply that you need to have a change in system for Iran to act according to what you want? Or do you believe that this system is capable of such change?
AL-JUBEIR: The problem with the Iranian system is you have two sides of it. You’ve got the regular system, Rouhani and the foreign ministries and so forth that talk, but don’t seem to deliver. And then you’ve got the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Forces who control a big chunk of the Iranian economy. And they’re the ones who are on a rampage. So if those who want to talk to you can’t deliver, and those who can deliver want to kill you, well—(laughs)—it’s just, like, we’re in a dilemma here. They need to make up their mind. Are you a revolution or a nation-state?
HAASS: Yes, ma’am.
Q: Good afternoon. I’m Sharon Nazarian. I’m senior vice president at the Anti-Defamation League, the ADL. We are 106-year-old Jewish organization. We fight antisemitism and extremism of all sorts.
And I really appreciate your comment about Qatar and export or extremism. And I totally agree with you. We at the ADL, though, we also look at—
HAASS: Your question?
Q: I’m sorry. Yes. Here, to the question. We at the ADL look Saudi textbooks every year and look for language, which is hateful, which is discriminatory. And we find that we’ve made recommendations to your government to remove language that’s against Jews, LGBT, Christians, those who convert out of Islam. What steps do you think you can take to really remove this kind of content that also is deemed extremist by organizations like ours? Thank you.
AL-JUBEIR: It’s a—we have looked at the issue of our textbooks since—for probably the past sixteen or—eighteen or nineteen years. We have gone through three or four iterations of updates and upgrades. And this is a continuing process. There are areas where clearly it has to do with hate speech or incitement that have to be removed. There are areas, frankly, where people pointed out things that they thought, for example, were antisemitic when they were not. When the textbook says that Palestine was—that half of Palestine—the state of Israel was established, there was no Israel before ’49. So that’s a political issue, not an antisemitic issue. When some of the issues that people—that have to do with verses from the Quran, it has to do with how do you interpret it and how do you explain it. So those are some of the tricky issues.
But our objective in Saudi Arabia has been zero tolerance for extremism in order to make sure that the minds of our youth are not being polluted. Our objective in terms of our education system is to focus on STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math, so that we give our young people skills to succeed in the—in the job market. And this is what we’re working on. Now, the issues where we find incitement or extremism or violence, those we are determined to work with. And, like I said, this is a work in progress. We have—we have the Ministry of Education is giving this a priority. And we will continue to work on this issue.
HAASS: Speaking about support for extremism outside the kingdom, do you think you have in place now a system that has proven its ability to stop the flows of funding from individual Saudis to various groups and movements that carry out terrorism?
AL-JUBEIR: I can’t say that. Nobody can say that. You can’t say that about the United States. What I can tell you is that when it comes to charities, they cannot transfer funds abroad. When it comes to any funding of groups, it has to be at the request of the local government and with their permission. When it comes to individuals, it’s against our laws to fund any institutions, except if you get permission from the government. Do people do that without permission? I would be surprised. I can’t say whether nobody’s doing it. But what we tell countries is if you have any indication that funds came from a Saudi citizen, tell us and we’ll drop the law book on him.
If money is transferred from a Saudi account to an account here in New York, and then from New York somewhere else, we don’t know where it went. We can tell you it went from Saudi Arabia to New York. Where it went from New York we have no idea. Unless you tell us this money went here, then we can’t take action.
And this is why we set up a financial center for counter terror financing in Saudi Arabia that brings as many countries together as possible so that we can share this type of information. This is why we have established in 2004, I believe, a joint cell, a fusion cell between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. on terror financing in order to track this and we’ve expanded it and tried to bring in other countries, because one country cannot do it alone and two countries can do it together. It has to be as broad a coalition of countries as possible.
Q: Raghida Dergham, Beirut Institute.
So let me try to follow up on my colleague’s question. President Trump today at the General Assembly set the tone, basically. He said more escalation by Iran will lead to more sanctions by the United States—tougher, deeper, larger—and the Europeans came in with their own condemnation, and it’s a major change in their position.
Should we conclude that now that you’re going to be active you’re going to try to get something in the diplomatic way in the United Nations Security Council, et cetera, to avoid also, from your point of view, consequences in military means? In other words, I’m asking you will you do Al Khobar back again, all over again, when you shoved it under the table to avoid military action?
AL-JUBEIR: You know, I think we will—we will continue consulting with our allies in the U.S. and in Europe. We will await the results of the investigation, which I expect to be fairly soon, and then we will decide on what steps to take in dealing with Iran. Iran had—it has to be made clear to Iran that such behavior is not acceptable and that there will be consequences for such behavior, and I think you have a whole list of potential options—diplomatic, economic, and military options—and we will have to decide which way to proceed at the right time.
But the—this actually will have consequences and the Iranians must know this, and I think the position that the E3 countries took yesterday was very significant.
HAASS: Madam Ambassador, I assume you’ll let me know if you want to ask a question.
Yes, ma’am, in the back.
Q: Yeah. Amy Jaffe with the Council on Foreign Relations.
I have a question for you. The attack on Abqaiq was sort of a very high escalation compared to the various attacks that have happened over the last year. With the U.S. military in place, do you have a view on why there wasn’t a deterrence against such a(n) extreme activity?
AL-JUBEIR: As I mentioned, I’m not a military person nor a military strategist. So those are not areas that we get involved in in the foreign ministry. We deal with diplomacy. But I know that people are looking into this and looking at options in terms of security facilities. We have a critical infrastructure protection program that is protecting infrastructure in terms of the ground. So I don’t know where the gaps were in the system, and I’m sure—not I’m sure—I know that people are looking into it now to see how one can fortify these locations also from the air.
HAASS: Just following up on that, two related questions. Do you have any information on how long it is likely to take before things are back to what they were before? And second of all, has there been any decision taken about how this might affect planning for the IPO?
AL-JUBEIR: Yeah. I think what has—what Aramco did was nothing short of spectacular. They put out a fire that involved—the strike knocked out 5.7 million barrels of oil. I believe 5.5 (million)—4.5 (million) was from Abqaiq and 1.2 (million) was from Khurais. I could be wrong. You should check with the oil ministry statement or Aramco statement.
But I believe those were the numbers. These are huge numbers. This is more than what happened after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And yet, Aramco, within four hours, was able to put out the fires in Khurais and within six hours put out the fires in Abqaiq. Within forty-eight hours, Aramco was able to gradually begin to resume production. I believe by the 17th of September they were up to 70 percent production. They were able to fill the gap through the strategic petroleum reserve that they had in order to make sure that the disruption to clients was as minimal as possible. By the end of this month, they should be back to full operations.
I can’t imagine any oil company in the world that has been able to do something like this ever. You have an explosion in a gas well and it takes months to plug. You have a leak in Alaska and it takes months to clear it. Aramco was able to do something that very—I don’t think any other country could have done it. That means great planning, great engineering, great construction, great redundancies, and great emergency responders.
If anything, this should increase investor confidence in the ability of this very unique oil company to do its job and do it well.
Q: Gerald Pollack.
How do you see the future of the fossil fuels?
AL-JUBEIR: I am the wrong person to ask, because I’m all for fossil fuels. (Laughter.) But in Saudi Arabia, part of our Vision 2030 is to try to reduce our reliance on oil, to open up new sectors for investments; for example, minerals, tourism, technology. We are one of the leading technology investors in the world today in terms of artificial intelligence, robotics, in terms of renewable energy, believe it or not, in terms of electric cars.
And so we’re cognizant of the fact that the world may—the world may move towards renewable energy. But we think that with oil, the use of oil will change. And if you move it toward—like, for example, I’m wearing—this has oil in it. My watch has oil in it. Your glasses has oil in it. So if you can move towards the chemicals part and the bio—the petrochemicals part, you go up the chain of value and you can increase your return. So that’s the area that we’re moving towards, on the one hand.
And on the other hand, we’re investing in new technologies. I think that the fossil fuels will be with us for a very long time. Oil replaced coal as the world’s leading source of energy in 1960, and yet oil production—coal production did not decrease significantly. It just meant that the energy pie increased and the non-coal portion of it took an increasingly larger share. I expect the energy pie in the world will increase, and perhaps the oil part of it, the percentage of it, might drop. But I say this as somebody who’s not an expert on oil.
So, anyway, that’s—I hope I was able to answer your question.
HAASS: Ambassador Indyk.
Q: Thank you, Foreign Minister. Welcome back to the Council on Foreign Relations. Good to see you here. Thank you for gracing us with your presence.
A quick comment and then a question, if I’m allowed. The comment is I listened very carefully to what you said about the kingdom’s reaction to the murder of Adnan Khashoggi—Adnan—Jamal Khashoggi. And it bothers me that what I don’t hear is three words from the crown prince, which are quite simple and straightforward: I take responsibility. And I think that if we heard those words, it would make a difference to everything else that you say about making sure that it doesn’t happen again. So that’s my comment.
My question is really that when I look at Saudi Arabia’s situation vis-a-vis Iran, if I were sitting in your chair, I would be very worried, not just because of Iran’s behavior, which you have catalogued, which we are very familiar with, but because now you have a situation where your principal protector, the United States president, is not only making clear that he is not prepared to confront Iran, but that he also is desperate—and I say that word advisedly—desperate for a meeting with Iran.
And we know from past experience with his meetings with world leaders that those are completely unpredictable. And you are out there on the front line, and I would say you’re out there on a limb at the moment. And if I were you, I would be quite worried about what that all means. So tell me, please, why aren’t you worried?
AL-JUBEIR: We believe—and we have very close consultations, as I mentioned, with the U.S. administration, including with the president. I believe that everybody wants to avoid war. Nobody wants to get into a conflict; we try our best and our utmost to avoid it. But it’s really the Iranians that are warmongering, not us.
The Iranians are the ones who launched 260 ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and more than 150 drones. Not us—w didn’t launch any ballistic missiles, any drones. We didn’t plant any terrorist cells in Iran, and we didn’t launch one bullet—fire one bullet in the direction of Iran. And this has been the case since the Iranian revolution.
So we are on the receiving end. And at a certain point you kind of say, this cannot go on. And I think that the U.S. position is deter Iran, push Iran into changing its behavior, make sure that Iran is held accountable. But when push comes to shove, I think there is a certain limit beyond which even America’s patience runs out. And the Iranians have to be aware of this.
We have no doubt in the United States and it policies. The president has sent troops to Saudi Arabia. He has sent equipment to Saudi Arabia. We are looking at other items that we may need or that we may require—us and the Emiratis—in order to complete our defensive posture, and this work is ongoing. But like I said, there is no—nobody is in a rush to war; we are trying to avoid war. But at the same time, we have to signal to the Iranians that your behavior cannot continue.
HAASS: What about the—do you have any reaction to Ambassador Indyk’s recommendation for the—
AL-JUBEIR: I hear it. I would say we will—we have just—let me just leave it at that: I hear it.
HAASS: Yes, sir, yeah, the third-to-last row there.
Q: Hi. Chris Rogers with the Open Society Foundations.
One of the few areas recently of bipartisan consensus that has emerged has been the suspension of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in Congress, principally as a result of civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition. This month, also, the U.N. Group of Eminent Experts released its report documenting a large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict, but also credible allegations of war crimes.
I guess my question is, is concerns in Congress unfounded? And what would you be able to point to today that the government could assure, in terms of practical steps that it’s taking to reduce civilian casualties as well as protect the United States from complicity in war crimes?
AL-JUBEIR: Yeah, I think the attempts to stop the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates did not succeed, I think, because the logic of supporting the coalition is compelling. And as I mentioned, if you want to send twenty thousand American troops to protect Yemen from Iranian takeover, be my guest, but that’s not going to happen.
And so we are doing something that is in the interest of our country, in the interest of your country, and in the interest of the world because stability in Yemen and lack of a takeover by a radical group allied with Hezbollah in Iran, sitting in a very strategic part of the world on one of the world’s most important choke points is extremely important to the world. So that’s what we are doing.
Now, with regards to the Eminent Experts report, we reject it conclusions. We believe the experts are biased. We believe the methodology was flawed. They had come to Saudi Arabia and we engaged them, and nothing was reflected in what they said. We believe that trying to create balance between the government—legitimate government versus the Houthi forces is not a way to proceed. We believe that they—that they relied on information that is not accurate, and so that’s with regards to the experts’ report.
We have a system in place that investigates if a mistake happens, or we believe a mistake happens. These investigations are thorough. Also, those investigations are published for everybody to see.
We have—I think we have released more than sixty of these reports. We hold people accountable. If there is a mistake made, then we put in place procedures to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
We have more than sixty thousand items on the—in Yemen on a no-strike list, and we keep updating those items depending on the information that we receive from the different organizations that operate in Yemen. And so this is what you do in order to comply with international humanitarian law. We have done that and we will continue to do it—compared to what the Houthis are doing.
Is anyone holding them accountable for recruiting twenty thousand child soldiers? I don’t see it. Is anyone holding them accountable for planting millions of landmines that cost people life and limb? I haven’t seen it. Is anyone holding them accountable for stealing humanitarian assistance? We saw the World Food Programme suspend operations temporarily in the Houthi-controlled areas because the Houthis were stealing the aid and preventing it from being distributed. Where is the outrage? Launching ballistic missiles at cities and civilians, where is the outrage? Robbing the central bank of $3 billion, where is the outrage?
And so there has been a misbalance in terms of how people look at the Yemen war. And unfortunately, they look at it from the prism of the coalition is killing babies when it’s the Houthis. The coalition is trying its best to get to a peace agreement, and it’s the Houthis who have rejected every attempt to do so. And so that’s where we—that’s the situation we have.
So, on the issue of Congress, I think people need to be more serious in looking at why the coalition is in Yemen and how it serves America’s interests. Arms sales are supposed to be conducted if they serve America’s interests and protect your allies. This is absolutely in line with it.
And with regards to the imminent experts report, we reject it. Like you said, we think it’s biased. We think it’s based on erroneous information. And we think—and we don’t believe—we don’t agree with its conclusions.
HAASS: Mr. Minister, we haven’t run out of questions but we have, alas, run out of time. I want to thank you again for giving us this time. We look forward to welcoming you back—
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you.
HAASS: —in the future.
I ask you all just to sit while the minister and the delegation exit. And then, also, you’re more than welcome to depart the room. We have a reception in Pratt House, and then we have a meeting coming up on climate change and the issue of adaptation, which is—does not get nearly the attention it ought to, coming up just after.
So, again, thank you, sir.
AL-JUBEIR: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)