×

CNBC Transcript: Interview with Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir

Following are excerpts from the transcript of a CNBC interview by Hadley Gamble and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir.

HG: Iran is threatening divine retribution for the execution of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, what is your government's response to that message from Tehran?

AJ: Our response is that he is a terrorist. He is as much of a religious scholar as Osama bin Laden was. He was implicated in inciting people, recruiting people, providing weapons and munitions for people and he was involved in attacks against security people and police stations that led to the killing of the innocents. In Saudi Arabia we are very determined to confront terrorism and confront it robustly and firmly. We will show no mercy to those that kill the innocents. The individual, along with the other 46 individuals had their due process, they went through the courts, the courts of appeal, it was reviewed by the Supreme Court. These were open trials. The media, both domestic and foreign had access to them if they wanted to, the records are available. The charges are clear, the convictions are clear and when the sentences were carried out – that was the end of it. The kingdom of Saudi should be commended for showing resolve and taking a firm position against people who kill the innocent, not condemned for it. And as far as the Iranians are concerned, what I find very puzzling is this individual is a Saudi citizen, he committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, he was convicted in a Saudi court and the sentence was carried out by Saudi authorities. What does Iran have to do with this? They execute hundreds of people every year, nobody says anything about it. This is their system, and so for the Iranians to inject themselves into our domestic affairs is in-line with what Iran has been doing for years throughout the region; in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Yemen. They have been providing supplies for terrorists, they have been recruiting people, they have been assassinating people, they have been sowing sectarianism in the region, splitting the Islamic world. Their policies are in violation of all the norms and customs that the international community has been based on. And yet, and so we have decided to say enough is enough and as a consequence we cut off our ties with the Iranians.

HG: So why is this happening now? Given that backlog of events, given Iran's involvement not just in trying to cement problems across the region but also attacks, personal attacks, even on yourself, what happened now that you decided to cut ties.

AJ: At a certain point everybody reaches their limit. The Iranians have gotten away with murder, literally for more than 30 years. The attacks against the American embassy in Beirut, the attacks against American marines at Beirut airport, the kidnapping and assassination of diplomats in Beirut and elsewhere. The fact that they harboured the individuals who were implicated in the Khobar bombings in 1996. One of them was apprehended last year carrying an Iranian passport, even though he was a Saudi citizen. They harboured al qaeda leaders after the 2001. Some of them are still there. The order to blow up the compounds in 2003 came from an al qaeda operative who was based in Iran at the time. The Iranians are known to be involved in this. The Iranians sent militia to fight with the consequence being more than 250,000 Syrians killed and more than 12 million people displaced. The Iranians smuggled explosives into Bahrain and weapons. They've tried to do the same in Saudi Arabia. They did the same in Kuwait. The Iranians have sent supplies and weapons and money and personnel to support the Houthis in Yemen so that they can takeover Yemen and present a threat to Saudi Arabia. So we see Iran's nefarious activities all over the region and so we have had grievances with them which we have made clear to them. We have tried to engage the Iranian government on this issue, we have told them that good relations with the countries of the region they should ask the responsible members of the international community and they should cease and desist in activities that are hostile or aggressive, unfortunately this is not what we have seen and so this latest round is just where we said enough is enough, we have to make a stand our public will not tolerated continued Iranian aggression towards Saudi without a response and so the response we took was to cut off our relations with Iran close down Iran's embassy missions in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

HG: But shouldn't the number one priority right now be the fight against the Islamic State and considering that you're, you seem to be at least, on the same side of that issue. Isn't it going to be a problem if you guys aren't talking?

AJ: I don't think that we're on the same side in terms of fighting Islamic State. I think Iran contributed to the rise of the Islamic State …

HG: but they say that you did..

AJ: Well they can say whatever they want but facts are stubborn things. The fact is there was no Islamic state before the war in Syria began. The fact is in the first year of the war in Syria there was no Islamic state, nor was there one in Iraq. Bashar Assad released criminals form his jails, Nouri al-maliki also released criminals from his jails. Those criminals made their way to Syria, this became part of the extremist movements which then evolved into Daesh, or Islamic State – they are not Islamic nor a state so we shouldn't call them that. In the first couple of years Bashar Assad traded with them, he bought oil from them, he allowed them to expand, and he allowed them to grow so that he can tell people that it's either me or the terrorists, and as a consequence they grew. The Iranians sent their militias, their Quds force and militias that they recruited from Iraq and other places and Hezbollah, to Syria to fight in support of Bashar Assad. They didn't fight Daesh, they fought the moderate Syrian opposition while allowing Daesh to grow and flourish and become a threat to everyone. So for Iran to say they're fighting Daesh is disingenuous. When it comes to Daesh and Iraq, the reason that we have Daesh in Iraq is because of the sectarian policies that nouri al-maliki, Iran's agent, pursued in Iraq for many years. He marginalized the Sunni's, he short-changed the Kurds when it comes to revenue sharing and he tried to impose a very radical Iranian driven sectarian agenda that the Iraqi people refused and as a consequence Iraq became fertile ground for Daesh, and we always say, I've always said, that the two elephants in the room that people need to seriously look at are Bashar Assad in Syria – he has to go in order to open the way for a defeat of Daesh, and the implementation of the reforms that the Iraqi people agreed to the summer before last that would keep the country united, give equal rights to all of Iraq's communities irrespective of their religion sect or ethnicity – that's how we remove the fertile ground in which Daesh flourishes then we can deal with them.

HG: Talk to me a little about the situation in Syria because if Saudi Arabia and Iran aren't technically talking doesn't that mean that the death and destruction and the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants is just going to continue longer term?

AJ: Well, we support the resolution of the conflict in Syria based on the principles of Geneva one and the discussions in Vienna and New York. A settlement that would lead to the establishment of a governing council that would take power from the Bashar government and that will then write a constitution and prepare for elections in order to move to a new Syria, a Syria in which Bashar has no role. We've always supported this. We've always said that we prefer a political solution to a military solution. But we've also said that the Syrian people have a right to defend themselves against this tyrant, and we support that right in every way we can and we will continue to. And so this is our position, the Iranian position on the other hand has been to send thousands of troops and recruit thousands if not tens of thousands of militias from different places from Iran, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Shia militias from Iraq from Lebanon in order to support Bashar Assad.

HG: So what needs to happen next in terms of ending this crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what are the steps that need to happen and also does the US need to play some kind of role?

AJ: I think that it's very simple, we did not escalate and we have not escalated in the past…

HG: *INTERRUPTS* but Iran has arrested 40 people at least in connection to what happened to your embassy, isn't that at least a show of support or a show of doing something?

AJ: We will see, as I said we have not escalated, our reactions have been in reaction to what Iran has done, we don't interfere in Iran's domestic affairs, we don't send weapons and explosives into Iran, we don't recruit Iranians to go and kill other Iranians…

HG: *INTERRUPTS* so would you characterise your foreign policy as reactionary?

AJ: So we have, in terms of the steps that we have taken they have been in response to the aggressive steps that Iran has committed to us so your original question was what would it take to resolve this? Very simple Iran should back-off, they should stop being aggressive they should stop interfering in the affairs of their neighbours, they should stop supporting terrorism, isn't that what all of us around the world want? I hope that they will turn around and adapt a more conciliatory policy and a more normal policy, the way that countries and governments should behave. And I want to emphasize here that we have not enmity towards Iran, we have no enmity towards the Iranian people, we have tremendous respect for Iran's culture and Iran's history. Iran is a neighbouring country, it's a fact, but we have a problem with their government, that's where the aggression is coming from, we wish the Iranian people well, and we wish that their government will behave as a government, not as a force for mischief and aggression. With regards to the steps that the Iranians took, what we have seen is we asked for assistance security at 2 o'clock or so in the afternoon, none was forthcoming, we asked again at 6, nothing happened, we asked again several hours later when the crowds were increasing, nothing happened…

HG: *INTERRUPTS* So they just didn't show up to help you?

AJ: We didn't see anyone helping us, and then what they did is they, even though this is a fundamental principle of the Vienna convention and the protection of diplomatic relations; it is the responsibility of the host government to protect foreign missions accredited to them. And it's one of the fundamental principles in international relations, even countries at war protect each other's diplomatic missions, in this case the Iranians didn't, and what we then saw was when people entered the embassy and began to set it on fire, then we saw security forces from Iran come in, then we saw the same security forces walk out with computers and documents…

HG: *INTERRUPTS* You have this on tape?

AJ: Well we have a briefing of this that we were provided 2 days ago, we have it, I believe in the public domain, we have eye witnesses who have this, other diplomats, non-Saudi diplomats, and they even took selfies of themselves inside the Saudi embassy, and we then…in Mashhasd we believe that the prestige was part of the operation that organised the demonstrations that were the same prestige that stormed the British embassy in 2011 , and then we noticed that the electricity was cut off in the neighbourhood where our diplomats live at about 2 or 3 in the morning while our Charge D'affaires was having meetings with other diplomats from friendly countries to see what steps to take. There are too many coincidences here.

HG: So you think it was a coordinated incident.

AJ: The other thing we noticed is there seem to have been a shift, a changing of the demonstrators, in the middle of the night one group left another group came. It seemed like our shift is over let's leave bring in the next shift. It was too, too organised to be random and the expressions of regret from Iran came after the fact. Give you another example. We discussed with the Iranian authorities the taking out of the Saudi families, the women and the children, and we agreed that we will take them out the next day. They agreed. We told them that some of them don't have their passports because they were burnt and we agreed on a mechanism. They showed up at the airport and they kept them waiting for more than 3 hours. You don't play these games if you're serious. Not when you have a crisis, you either defend the mission or you don't.

HG: Talk to me about the Russians. They've offered to mediate here, they've offered to mediate in Syria as well – does Russia have a role to play and if so what is it?

AJ: Every country has a role to play as long as it's a positive role, every country has a role to play. When it comes to mediation, we don't need mediation. We know where Iran is , Iran knows where Saudi Arabia is, they know what our issues with them are um and what they have to do is show us that they are serious. Show us a change in behaviour, show us a change in attitude, show us a desire to want to have normal relations with us and we will do the same, we have no issue with this. With regards to Russia, Russia can play a very important role by putting pressure on Bashar Assad to step down and allow for a transition in Syria and we've made this to them, we've made this very clear to them.

HG: There's been a noticeable shift in terms of outrage from the Saudi government and the Russia Government in terms of investments in Russia. This is a country that's been hurt by sanctions for a couple of years now, they're also being hurt by these lower oil prices as is Saudi Arabia, is there an opportunity there to come to some kind of agreement on oil output do you think?

AJ: Well oil is a commodity that is controlled by the markets and by supply and demand. It is subject to cyclical swings depending on how much supply, how much demand and this affects the price of oil. I think the discussions about being able to manipulate the price or being able to manipulate the markets are exaggerated at the end of the day its fundamental economics of supply and demand. With regards to our relationship with Russia, we believe that the extent of trade we have with Russia is not in line with the size of our respective economies. We are both members of the G20 but we have very little trade, very little investment and so we wanted to change that. Russia is a great power, Russia has 20 million Muslims living in it, Russia can play a positive role and we wanted to engage with Russia, we wanted to improve our relationship with Russia not at the expense of our relationship with any other country but for the sake of having better ties with Russia. So we began a process of reaching out and began a process of encouraging trade, encouraging scientific exchanges, encouraging investment and we will continue to do that and on the areas where we may have disagreements we will agree that we will talk about them and try to resolve them and if there are areas which cannot be resolved, we will just wait until the opportune time comes to be able to resolve those.

HG: So continuing to invest in Russia is important to Saudi Arabia?

AJ: If we find investments that are profitable – yes. If we find investments that are good for the Saudi people and the Saudi treasury yes, but we invest the way any serious investor does – you look at cost and you look at returns.

HG: You think that analogy when you look at the conversation that is ongoing in the region about whether or not your intervention in Yemen is successful – what does success in Yemen really look like and how close are you to achieving it?

AJ: There are two phases to the operation in Yemen. The first phase had to do with an emerging threat on our border. We had a militia that allied with Iran and Hezbollah that took over increasing parts of the country. Went from its base and took over the capital, took over the government, moved south, took over Aden, surrounded the Presidential palace in Aden, and was on the verge of either kidnapping, imprisoning or killing heaven forbid the President. The President of Yemen asked for support under article 51 of the UN charter. Saudi Arabia and a coalition of 10 countries provided that support. We were facing a situation where we had a militia that was in possession of heavy weapons, that was in possession of ballistic missiles with a range of several hundred miles and that was now in the possession of an air force. I don't believe there is another example in the world where you have a militia outside the government in possession of military aircraft. And this was an imminent threat to Saudi. So the first phase of the operations was designed to take out that threat – the heavy weapons, the ballistic missiles, the air defences and the air force so that we remove the threat. The other part of this operation was to defend the legitimate government of Yemen which nobody in the world took issue with – we have a legal basis UN Security Council 2216 and we have article 51 and we have requests by legitimate government, so, and we've always said that the operations are meant to open the door for a physical settlement in Yemen. Yemen can only be resolved politically through the implementation of the GCC initiative the outcomes of the national dialogue and UN security council resolution 2216 that's what we're working on. Military operations have been making gradual progress in Yemen. The legitimate government is now in charge of almost 80% of the territory in Yemen, six months ago that was not the case…

HG: *INTERRUPTS* So how much longer are we talking?

AJ: And I don't think anyone can predict wars it's like trying to predict the stock market there may be ups and downs but what we're seeing is progress and progress increasingly so and we're seeing the talks in Geneva between the government and the ???? alliance and we're hoping that they'll be able to make progress. But if they don't make progress we'll continue to support, the legitimate government and Yemen will be resolved – it's just a matter of time.

HG: Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the region and of course you are also the largest oil producer as well – many people are worried about not just what's happening in the Middle East of course but the knock on effect that has in the west. What happens here has major implications for global markets as well – does Saudi Arabia have a plan?

AJ: A plan for?

HG: A plan for the future in terms of an economic vision in terms of tackling not just the challenges here at home but also the challenges in the region?

AJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. We have been for decades devising 5 year plans in order to meet certain targets development so that we can build infrastructure build schools build hospitals, educate our people, provide jobs for people attract foreign investment, diversify our economy and we've been doing this. We are now working on another aspect of Saudi Arabia where we will fundamentally change our economy and have – be able to have a quantum leap forward and look at every aspect of the Saudi economy and every aspect of Saudi institutions to see how we could make it more efficient, how we can generate more value, how we can generate more income out of non-oil sources and we have, this will be announced in the next few weeks, we are very transparent about it. This country has huge potential and huge opportunities we have political stability, we have a young population we have a dynamic population, we have an educated population, we have almost 70% of our population is under the age of 30, we are the most wired people in the world in terms of social media Twitter, Facebook and the like, and so there's tremendous - and we have great business establishment some of the world's leading businesses are in Saudi Arabia companies like Saudi Aramco, STC all operate here. We have hundreds of thousands of very young men and women who have studied abroad or are currently studying abroad everywhere from Japan to the United States and they will come back appreciative of and knowledgeable of different cultures and they will be able to speak different languages, they will be even more connected with the world and all of this energy will bring together in a country that has as you said a huge mineral base, a huge natural resource base, a huge savings base a first rate infrastructure, stable political environment in a geographically strategic location and you have all the ingredients for a tremendous acceleration of economic growth in Saudi Arabia and this is what we are hoping to achieve…Just to give you a sense of where we are in the past year in 2015 was the year for planning and 2016 is going to be the year when we begin the execution of these plans. Last year we were able to increase our non-oil share of revenue in the budget to 29% its unheard of, most oil producers are somewhere around 90-95% of their income is from oil – we were able to diversify and we haven't even scratched the surface yet. The things that you will be seeing in the coming weeks are tremendously ambitious and very realistic and I have no doubt that it will increase the already strong investor confidence in Saudi Arabia, it will increase the confidence of our citizens which is already very strong and it will transform Saudi Arabia.

HG: And finally your excellency one more question can you continue to pursue an expansionary foreign policy given the current price environment with oil prices where they are and also in terms of what's happening here at home, in terms of the cutting of subsidiaries in terms of this basically austerity which is very new for Saudi Arabia – is that something that's achievable?

AJ: With regards to foreign policy and security policy it's not a luxury it's not like a hobby that you pursued and you decide at one point that it's too expensive I shouldn't do it – it's a necessity we have to work to put our region in order and we have to do what we need to do to protect our citizens and our country – there can be no price tag attached to it that will continue – that's firm. With regards to our domestic situation I think one of the points I would also like to emphasise is that of the G20 countries we're virtually debt free. Our debt to GDP ratio is 5 or 6 or 7 per cent it's very very low. In most countries 50-60% would be an enviable percentage. In some countries in the G20 the debt to gdp ratio exceeds 200%. We're not there so…we have a huge borrowing capacity we have a huge non-oil income generating capacity that will allow us to continue on our with our development plans without austerity – this is a term that's not in our lexicon, without having to have any kind of austerity or impacting on the quality of life of our citizens. When people talk about subsidiaries we have energy prices that are way too low and the people who benefit from them are probably 20% and so what we did is we changed the formula so that the middle class and the lower middle class prices for them don't change so their lives will not be impacted and those who can afford to spend more should be able to spend what it costs to produce this energy and so the impact is going to be very little. But on the people who would feel the impact the most the impact would be almost zero.

HG: So the world shouldn't be worried about Saudi Arabia?

AJ: Absolutely not. Saudi Arabia has been around for 300 years - this is the 3rd Saudi state, foundations are the same, the leadership is the same, Saudi Arabia is a country that is inclusive we are not ….

HG: Many would dispute that…

AJ: Inclusive in our own way I mean we connect with people discuss consultations go on we have a very strong bonds between the country and the people in the leadership. It's not an erratic country we have a clear sense of direction and we pursue that. Our policies have been consistent for the last 70 years – you dint see Saudi Arabia going from the western world to the soviet world and back to the western world we don't do this we don't have u-turns it's always very consistent. Sometimes people accuse us of moving, think we're moving too slowly and that's sometimes the same people who think we're moving too quickly and so I assume if people say both things about you that you're probably doing it at the right pace

HG: Your excellency thank you so much for joining us.

AJ: Any time, thank you.