The Magazine

Sultan of Spin

The dishonesty of Saudi PR flack Adel al-Jubeir.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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NEEDLESS TO SAY, everyone in Washington politics and journalism is accomplished and popular and physically attractive. But even here, there are some among us whom Allah has clearly singled out for special blessing. And Adel al-Jubeir is one of them. He's the 40-year-old "foreign policy adviser" to Crown Prince Abdullah, managing partner of Saud and Sons, the well-established and widely respected Middle Eastern tyranny. You can't buy al-Jubeir's kind of luck.

For one thing, he's never been made to work at the home office, where business practices are a little old-fashioned and people can get stoned to death for "sorcery," stuff like that. Which is fine, don't get us wrong, it's just that back in the Kingdom an ambitious young Saudi fellow feels a bit, you know, confined. Not so in bohemian Denton, Texas, where al-Jubeir was fortunate enough to spend his college years at North Texas State University, studying economics with a then-unknown professor named Dick Armey. And not so, next, here in Washington, where over the past twenty years al-Jubeir, playing all-purpose fixer for the Saudi embassy, has quietly racked up a list of triumphs that few NTSU alums--and even fewer Arabian peninsula princelings--would ever dare dream of.

Item the first: According to the New York Times, in his spare time al-Jubeir serves as "an occasional escort" to NBC White House correspondent Campbell Brown. When this happens, Ms. Brown not infrequently exposes her face and ankles to public view. And yet she is never imprisoned as an embarrassment to womanly virtue. Nobody even spits on her! Ask yourself: Would the same be true were al-Jubeir's boss, the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to take a comparable stroll through the streets of Riyadh with his wife, Princess Haifa al-Faisal? How do you say "No way, José" in Arabic?

Item the second, speaking of Princess Haifa: It's lately become news that she has a beautiful soul--such that she routinely gives away huge sums of money to perfect strangers. One such stranger, a year and a half ago, was a Saudi woman to whom the princess sent thousands of dollars in personal checks, for "medical treatment." Some part of which boodle then made its way, through a cut-out, into the hands of two men, also Saudi, who soon crashed a large airplane into a building called the Pentagon.

An unfortunate coincidence, to be sure. Also a tad suspicious, you might think. Not to worry, though. Prince Bandar has asked Adel al-Jubeir to reassure his well-placed American friends that Princess Haifa's contribution to mass murder was "inadvertent"--and that Saudi Arabia, as much as any country on earth, remains a staunch American ally against terrorism. This reassurance al-Jubeir has now delivered, at an embassy press conference last Tuesday and during follow-up interviews with all the leading television personalities. Adel al-Jubeir is suddenly a star.

His reviews have been excellent. He is "dapper," "dashing," "polished," "earnest," "well-tailored," and "ultra-modern." He "beguiles." He is "the Sultan of Spin." And this is just the sober stuff, from the unimpeachably serious Post and Times.

The thing of it is, though--and this is the part that makes you think al-Jubeir leads a truly charmed existence: He's actually a lying sonofabitch.

No, we don't pretend to have proof that Princess Haifa deliberately helped pay for one of the September 11 hijackings. We doubt whether that kind of conclusive evidence will ever emerge, one way or the other. And we don't think it matters, either, because the already available evidence is plenty bad enough. What does it mean, after all, that Saudi Arabian royalty could be but two short steps removed from the bank accounts of suicide pilots who murdered nearly 200 U.S. government employees? Can anyone imagine having to ask such a question about the first political family of any other American "ally"?

Nor do we intend to waste ink pointing out how preposterous it is for al-Jubeir to insist that his country--home of bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 hijackers, and most of the Taliban detainees at Guantanamo, and all of official-export Wahhabi dogma that fevers such creatures in the first place--is free of blame for reactionary Islamic terrorism. Technically speaking, of course, this claim is a falsehood. But nobody could possibly be stupid enough to believe it, so we'll let it pass.

However. One thing al-Jubeir said at his press conference cannot be let go. This, first, because for sheer audacity it can hardly be topped. And, second, because this particular piece of "polished," "ultra-modern" mendacity likely sailed--completely unrecognized--right over the heads of even the most intelligent people who witnessed it. The controversy in question is not one a lot of people are familiar with. Which is a shame. The subject is important.

Adel al-Jubeir was asked about a series of kidnappings in which little boys and girls, U.S. nationals abducted from their American mothers by abusive Saudi fathers, have been spirited across the globe and held captive for years--in unspeakable conditions (beatings, rapes, forced conversions to Islam, arranged marriages for 12-year-old girls) and all under color of Saudi law. The "beguiling" al-Jubeir kept cool: "I couldn't have asked for a better question, sir. Thank you." And then he coolly beguiled: Among the world's 10,000 unresolved international child custody disputes, he said, only 4 involve the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has done "as much if not more than any other country" to find an effective solution to this problem. But "at the end of the day, these are strictly personal matters between parents," so what's a royal family to do? Next question, please.

Not so fast, buddy.

First, however, a word about Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana. Over ten terms in the House, Burton has regularly courted controversy, and has been regularly mocked for it. We have made sport of him ourselves. But now we take it all back, and apologize to him for not doing so earlier. Here's why: This past year alone Dan Burton has covered himself in glory and made his entire public career worthwhile. Specifically, Burton and his House Government Reform Committee staff (with notable publicity assistance from Wall Street Journal editorialist Bill McGurn and Mike Wallace of CBS's "60 Minutes") have worked month after month to keep the Saudi child abduction story--and the flickering hopes of its great many victims--alive.

Because of Dan Burton, we know that there aren't just 4 kidnappers now being shielded behind the Saudi border, but 46 of them--according to State Department case files that name at least 92 U.S. citizens apparently being held against their will. Because of Burton we know that most of these abductees are girls, that some have been hostage so long they are now adults, and that even these adults are helpless before their captors: Saudi Arabia is the only nation on the planet where no female of the species, not even a grown woman, is permitted to travel abroad without the express, written consent of her father or husband.

Because of Burton we also know that Adel al-Jubeir is, we say again, a lying sonofabitch--that there is, too, something more the Saudi government could do to reunite these desperate American children with their desperate mothers. Otherwise, why would senior Saudi diplomats be personally intervening to keep such people apart? As Adel al-Jubeir himself has intervened in two recent cases.

Back in the first week of September, Dan Burton led a congressional delegation to Saudi Arabia, having badgered its government into allowing him interviews with a number of kidnap victims--and having heard vague hints that he might actually be able to bring 3 of them home: a pair of sisters, Alia and Aisha al-Gheshayan, abducted from their mother, Pat Roush, in 1986, and a third American, Amjad Radwan, whose mother, Monica Stowers, was expelled from the Kingdom in 1985 after discovering that her Saudi husband was a psychotic bigamist.

The last time Pat Roush saw her daughters, a two-hour meeting in a Riyadh hotel room seven years ago, the elder girl, Alia, begged her, "Please, Mama, don't leave us here." Monica Stowers has not had quite so excruciating a wait; she's been back in Riyadh on and off since 1990, moving her daughter from house to house so as to protect her from a sexually abusive stepbrother and uncle. Amjad's father has tolerated his ex-wife's meddling. But until Dan Burton's trip, there was no sign the man might ever let his daughter go home. A lot was banking on that trip, in other words, and hopes were very high.

But on the day Burton arrived in Riyadh, the al-Gheshayan sisters were not there. They'd left for a rush "vacation" to a London hotel room, where, surrounded by male Saudi relatives and coached by a Saudi lobbyist from the American PR firm Qorvis Communications, which should be ashamed of itself, the two girls told an Associated Press reporter, who should be ashamed of herself, that they hate their mother and "will not rest until she dies." This grotesque scene was then reported back to the States by a second invited witness, whose gullible boss, Fox News talkshow host Bill O'Reilly, promptly pronounced it credible. O'Reilly should be ashamed of himself, too. But the man who should be most ashamed of all is Adel al-Jubeir. Because he set the whole thing up.

While in Riyadh, Dan Burton was able to interview Monica Stowers's daughter Amjad. She was weeping and her hands were trembling and she told Burton, "I want to go to America, I want to be free." But just the night before, Amjad's father had forced her to marry a 42-year-old Saudi Arabian air force officer, and this man was now right there, watching, while she answered Burton's questions. Amjad looked over at her "husband," lowered her head, and told Burton that what she wanted wasn't important--that she couldn't leave, "not now."

What's the deal here, Mike Wallace asked Adel al-Jubeir a few weeks later on "60 Minutes"? "We were accused of not allowing her to leave," he replied. "I'm telling you, she has a passport and she has a visa. Why doesn't she leave?" When did Amjad get this passport, Wallace wanted to know? "Mike, as soon as we found out about it, we fixed it, which means we move very quickly. I told you, I didn't know about this case until--what?--a month ago."

Whereupon Wallace showed his "60 Minutes" audience a 14-year-old document by which the Saudi government washed its hands of responsibility for Monica Stowers's daughter. The document was signed by Adel al-Jubeir.

Sultan of Spin, indeed.

--David Tell, for the Editors