Adel al-Jubeir, the departing Saudi ambassador to the U.S., stopped by the State Department Wednesday for a chat with Secretary of State John Kerry before flying to Riyadh to begin his new job as foreign minister.
The quick stop underscored that Saudi King Salman chose a well-known figure in official Washington circles to succeed Prince Saud al-Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, as part of a high-level shakeup.
Al-Jubeir, 53, who has been an adviser and confidant to three Saudi kings, is only the second non-royal to hold the post since the foreign ministry was created in 1930, according to its website. The post has been filled for the last 40 years by Prince Saud, who’s 75 and has suffered from health setbacks in recent years.
“To take someone like Adel, who is a consummate professional and extremely effective in his job as ambassador, and elevate him to foreign minister sends a really strong, positive message to everybody that competence counts,” said Ford Fraker, who was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2007 to 2009.
The promotion caps a remarkable rise for the U.S.-educated al-Jubeir, who began his diplomatic career as an aide to flamboyant Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He earned a B.A. summa cum laude in political science and economics from the University of North Texas in 1982, and an M.A. in international relations from Georgetown University in 1984, according to his official biography. Along with Arabic and English, he speaks fluent German.
His appointment puts at a very senior level “one of the very best-informed Saudis about the American scene,” said Richard Murphy, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. Al-Jubeir’s new role will “positively impact” U.S.-Saudi relations, said Fraker, who is president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington.
In a statement, Kerry called al-Jubeir a “skilled diplomat and trusted interlocutor for many American officials” and said “his promotion reaffirms the strong and historic bond between Saudi Arabia and the United States at a critical time.”
Al-Jubeir is someone that Kerry “has come to know particularly well,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. The two men met Wednesday “on a host of issues,” she told reporters. “They speak quite frequently, as well.”
In an unrecognized hint of his role to come, al-Jubeir announced the Saudi military action this month against the Houthi rebels in Yemen to reporters invited to the embassy in Washington.
For years, al-Jubeir was the kingdom’s public face and voice in the U.S. capital and, for a time, a well-known bachelor-about-town whose active social life might have met with disapproval in his conservative homeland.
That was offset by his effectiveness as the kingdom’s main public defender after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when evidence of Saudi individuals helping to finance al-Qaeda threatened relations between the two countries.
Still, he has been the commoner-in-waiting for bigger things since at least 2000, when then-Crown Prince Abdullah summoned him back to Riyadh and began preparing him to succeed his mentor and role model, Prince Bandar, who frequently lived up to his high-flying fighter pilot image, sometimes alarming his fellow royals. In August 2005, King Abdullah appointed al-Jubeir to the position of adviser at the Royal Court.
His appointment as ambassador came in 2007, when he was 44 and Bandar’s successor in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of the Saudi intelligence service, quit after 18 months.
Al-Jubeir’s elevation made him the first non-royal to occupy the lavish Saudi ambassador’s residence in McLean, Virginia, a short distance from the Central Intelligence Agency and just up the road from such luminaries as the late Senator Edward Kennedy and former Virginia senator Chuck Robb and his wife, a daughter of the late President Lyndon Johnson.
His post as ambassador meant ditching his bespoke suits for traditional robes, working seven 14-hour days a week despite now being married with children, and undertaking frequent 13-hour flights home for consultations.
It also thrust him into the middle of U.S.-Saudi disagreements over the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the current nuclear negotiations with Iran.
American officials who’ve dealt with him through the years say he’s shown a great ability to manage the differences subtly.
“He moves about very quietly,” said Murphy in an interview. “He’s not the showman that Bandar was, which is welcome relief among most people, and he’s been seen as a very reliable spokesman for the leadership in Riyadh.”
During an April 2008 meeting in the Saudi capital between U.S. officials and King Abdullah, who died in January, al-Jubeir was blunt in expressing the monarch’s views about Iran.
Al-Jubeir “recalled the king’s frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran” to end to its nuclear program, according to a classified U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks. The cable quoted al-Jubeir as saying of the king, “He told you to cut off the head of the snake.”
Al-Jubeir told the officials, including then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, that working with the U.S. to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq was a strategic priority for the king and his government, according to the document.
Three years later, al-Jubeir was the target of what the U.S. said was a foiled Iranian-sponsored plot to hire a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate him at Cafe Milano, a Washington restaurant where people go to be seen, and sometimes to eat as well.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to indicate that al-Jubeir is the second, not first, non-royal to be foreign minister.)