Person of the Week: Adel al-Jubeir

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Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy Advisor Adel Al-Jubeir answers questions from the media

Adel al-Jubeir struck a slight, plaintive figure as he stood before a crowded Washington press conference this week to plead for understanding. "We believe that our country has been unfairly maligned," the balding, soft-spoken man told the assembled reporters. "We believe that we have been subjected to criticism that we do not deserve." For his role serving as chief spin-doctor for the Saudi government at a time when it's fighting a PR battle to convince America of its bona fides as an anti-terror ally amid a relentless torrent of skepticism, Adel al-Jubeir is our Person of the Week.

The problem is less at a government-to-government level than in the sphere of public opinion. Although they'd like the Saudis to do more to clamp down on funds reaching al-Qaeda, the Bush Administration has spoken positively of Saudi cooperation against bin Laden's network in the wake of 9/11. The Administration knows well that the Saudi rulers are among bin Laden's most loathed enemies, and overthrowing them is a key objective of his global jihad. The Administration is also aware that a majority of Saudis are considerably more hostile to the United States than are their rulers, which requires both Washington and Riyadh to show a high degree of sensitivity in managing their relationship to avoid provoking political instability and even Islamic revolution on top of one quarter of the world's known oil reserves.

Tensions between the longtime allies were obvious even before 9/11, as the Saudis sought desperately to persuade the Bush Administration to more actively pursue a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when 15 Saudis were among the 19 hijackers on September 11, American public discussion of the kingdom began to change. Skeptics in Congress and the media began drawing uncomfortable attention to the Saudis' role not only in backing Afghanistan's Taliban regime, but in propagating a similarly stark worldview among the world's Muslims. Saudi opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq — for fear of consequences more dangerous than any threat from Saddam — has amplified criticism.

With bin Laden still at large and al-Qaeda continuing to strike, al-Jubeir's PR campaign faces considerable odds. The history of Saudi support for bin Laden doesn't help. There was a time, in fact, when America's leaders thought it was an exceedingly good idea for wealthy Saudis to send their millions to Osama bin Laden to be used for purposes of jihad. That was back in the mid-1980s, when the target of Bin Laden's jihad was the Soviet army occupying Afghanistan. Bin Laden was a star fundraiser and organizer for a program organized by Egyptian and Saudi intelligence in conjunction with the CIA to recruit young Muslims from around the world enraged by this infidel occupation of a Muslim land, bring them through Pakistan to Afghanistan, train them, arm them, organize them into a kind of Islamist International Brigade and let them loose on the hapless Red Army. That program helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, but it also built the foundations of the movement known today as al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia's harshest critics in the media and on Capitol Hill have sought to portray the kingdom's rulers as intimately involved with al-Qaeda terrorism, although some of the evidence offered to support these claims is far from convincing — the suggestion that Princess Haifa, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington sent money to 9/11 hijackers, for example, turns out to be based on a charitable check she wrote to a woman who, unbeknownst to the princess, had signed it over to a man who made brief loan to two of the hijackers without knowing their terrorist identities. Yet three substantial degrees of separation didn't stop Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman who referred to that incident following al-Jubeir's press conference to chide that ''the Bush Administration and the Saudis have done a masterful job of turning attention away from ... the trail that leads to the possibility that a foreign government provided support to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.''

But the Princess Haifa story may be the least of Al-Jubeir's problems. The absence of democracy, freedom of speech, women's equality and religious diversity in the Kingdom don't endear it to Americans as a lovable ally. The fact that the Saudis, mindful of their own restive public opinion, can't simply be seen to be doing the U.S. bidding doesn't help either. And, of course, there are profoundly different views on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which translate into sharp differences between Washington and Riyadh over whether to categorize groupings such as Hamas as terrorists.

Al-Jubeir came to Washington this week to tell of the Saudis freezing suspicious bank accounts, questioning more than 2,000 people and holding more than 100 in custody over possible al-Qaeda links. His mission wasn't helped by remarks that same week by Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef blaming the 9/11 attacks on Israeli intelligence. But al-Jubeir soldiers on.

"We will be vigilant," al-Jubeir promised in Washington. "We will be determined. And we will be merciless when it comes to dealing with terrorism and those who perpetrate it." But given the relentless tide of skepticism on Capitol Hill and in the media, al-Jubeir has his work cut out for him.