The task of containing the fallout over Saudi Arabia’s murder of a Washington Post columnist has fallen to a man who was once himself a fixture in elite social circles in the U.S. capital.
Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir is the face of Saudi diplomacy in Washington, especially now that the monarchy’s ambassador to the United States has been recalled after giving lawmakers false information about the fate of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When Saudi Arabia belatedly admitted responsibility for his killing over the weekend, Jubeir began a battle to limit the damage.
"This was an operation that was a rogue operation,” Jubeir told Fox News. "This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had. They made the mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate and they tried to cover up for it.”
It’s not the first time Jubeir has had to clean up a difficult mess. It was Jubeir who maintained that Saudi Arabia had “been unfairly maligned,” when it was revealed that 15 of the September 11, 2001 hijackers hailed from his country. At the time, lawmakers suspected official government support for the terrorist attack.
Those jobs were a necessary corollary to his role as a Washington socialite. He began his diplomatic career in 1986 serving as a special assistant to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He was groomed by the prince, in addition to being educated in Texas, as part of a Saudi effort to develop first-rate envoys to D.C.
“[N]othing remotely like it has been part of the American and Saudi Arabian — or arguably other Arab — diplomatic tool chests either before, then, or subsequently,” as the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations put it in 2011. In his younger days, Jubeir would attend parties thrown by influencer Juleanna Glover Weiss, who was so successful at gathering heavy-hitters under her roof that it attracted national media attention.
“Men were drawn to her early parties in part because of the beauteous presence of Campbell Brown, [then] NBC's White House correspondent,” a New York Times profile noted in 2004. Jubeir reportedly "dated" Brown, who went on to become an anchor at CNN.
That relationship contributed to his reputation for being “the playboy Saudi envoy and man about town,” as the Times put it later.
“He has a rapport with D.C. power brokers, obviously,” Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner.
Those connections helped him take over as ambassador to the United States in 2007, landing a position typically reserved for members of the royal family. At that point, he lowered his profile — though his 2009 marriage garnered a Washington Life Magazine announcement that Jubeir was “a bachelor no longer!” — working behind the scenes to advance U.S.-Saudi relations. He was successful enough in that effort to attract the attention of Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran. The Shia regime orchestrated a plot to murder him at a Georgetown restaurant, Cafe Milano.
But the Khashoggi murder will test his diplomatic ability, as the killing has drawn comparisons even to the attempt on Jubeir’s life.
“Just like we've seen in other high-visibility [cases] — Iranian operatives trying to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. — these things take on a very large role in terms of people's opinion of how to react to a particular nation,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Washington Examiner shortly after Khashoggi’s death.
Jubeir is steadfast in denying that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had any responsibility for the murder, even though it was reportedly carried out on the orders of one of his top advisers, aided by members of the Royal Guard. It doesn’t help his cause that the previous Saudi ambassador to the United States claimed that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, and gave specious excuses for why they couldn’t provide video showing his exit.
“I don’t know what the Saudis were thinking,” Schanzer said. “This operation was ill-conceived, Ill-advised and unprofessional from start to finish. The current response was the only logical outcome and I’m surprised they didn’t anticipate it.”
It may be that the Saudi government, at a critical decision-point, failed to take advantage of Jubeir’s insight into American politics.
“In no country is the foreign minister in charge of the military or the intelligence service,” Elliot Abrams, who served at the State Department under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, told the Washington Examiner. “Jubeir would not have known about this in advance. There is zero chance of that, in my opinion.”