I’ve written about Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington and a favorite of the king, at least five times (“This Is A Scoop … A Scoop About Saudi Arabia,” “When Progress Is Made Progress Should Be Recognized,” “The Saudi Ambassador,” “A Circus Or A Conclave,” “Why Should Israel Make Peace With Failed States?”). I should have written about Adel soon after we met. It wasn’t a year before he invited a few of us roughly from the TNR crowd (Fouad Ajami, Michael Kinsley, Tom Tisch, James Woolsey, and one or two others) to be his guests on a visit to the kingdom. That was exactly 16 years ago. How do I know? We celebrated Tom’s 40th birthday in an empty royal palace, maybe eight or ten of us, with an enormous, truly enormous chocolate cake that might have been baked by William Greenberg whose breads, challahs,and voluptuous pastries can be bought at Madison Avenue at 82nd Street. (Jackie Kennedy’s butcher, Lobel’s Prime Meats, is next door.) Anyway, I didn’t write then because I hadn’t quite grasped the meaning of what I was seeing or, for that matter, the anomalies of what we were being told.
In any case, as you must know by now, al-Jubeir was the kill target of the Islamic Republic of Iran, some say this faction, some say another. What does it matter? He was to be murdered in an expensive but tacky Washington restaurant, Café Milano, written about in these columns by Tim Noah. I am surprised that Adel frequents this eatery: He usually has exquisite taste, and in the places that we’ve eaten both food and ambiance were remarkable. But don’t get me wrong. We are not intimates. Certainly not now. On the other hand, he has a fast and deep mind, a mind that impresses. And, yes, he wants for his country that it be a civilized place where people are educated and free to think. In a certain way, though, the peninsula’s colossal oil wealth could both hasten the liberalization of the society and keeps it in fetters. Some people live in tatters.
The land is also riven by the Sunni-Shia divide which is as deep as the most productive oil well in the sands. I’ve had several conversations with both official and unofficial Sunnis, and I don’t quite grasp whether they hate or disdain their Muslim “other.” When they talk with Jews about Jews it’s clear that they simply don’t understand them. Here is this ancient people—more than twice as ancient as they are—who when they returned to the Holy Land had nothing. I suspect that few Saudis would exchange their bottomless wealth for the modernity and spiritual antiquity of Israel. But I know that the life of the most opulent resident of the peninsula is shabby in relation to the life of the Jewish return.
Here are two countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran (the successor culture to the great Persian empire), both aligned with others that make them enemies of the State of Israel. But half a century ago Tehran and Jerusalem had built bridges that actually cemented millennia. For many Persians real progress means to return to the bridges of the Jews.
My own estimate is that the Saudis would be ready to make a quiet peace with the Jews. Maybe the fact that the aborted Arab Spring did not really fix much on Israel will encourage the king, his princes, and his supreme diplomat to test the waters of the Jordan and see what further may be grown there. Another thing I know: Israel is a silent player—but a player, nonetheless—in the defense of the monarchy, in its contingent defense.
And, of course, it is a pivotal player in the defense of American and western interests in the world. Saudi Arabia can’t even purport to do something concrete, although it made a big show in Kuwait, produced by James Baker, more than two decades ago. And it propped up Bahrain, governed by a tiny minority Sunni royal house over a majority Shia populace, some months ago. Quite brutally, in fact.
As for Tehran, the man arguably responsible for its mischief against the West is President Obama. He had encouraged the mullahs to think that all the mullahs needed to do was talk and they would talk out a settlement. I suppose the president knows better now.
In another part of the Islamic world Obama had been seduced by another Muslim vision, the vision of the Ottomans. The vision of Erdogan. Does he know now that this, too, is fraudulent?
Now that Adel al-Jubeir is still alive—may he live, as we Jews say, till a hundred and twenty—perhaps the president should have a long conversation with him. Not with his declining monarch. Not with his declining monarch’s successor. Or his successor in turn. But with him.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.