Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Mohammad Hassan Tal
Ad Dustour Newspaper
15 August 2016
(Translated from Arabic)

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, Jordan is bracing for parliamentary elections that will be conducted under a new law. What is your vision for these elections and how would it contribute to enhancing Jordan's reform process?

King Abdullah: The new Elections Law will improve the electoral process and provide an opportunity to advance reform, enhance parliamentary and legislative life as well as democracy. The law adopts an open proportional list system and widens the electoral districts. This paves the way for the participation of a broader spectrum of voters in elections and allows parties and political powers and blocs to run as part of unified tickets. These tickets are expected to lead to platform-based, pluralist coalitions and alliances that will make it to Parliament and contribute to further reforms.

What is also special about this year's elections is that they witness the largest number of eligible voters in the history of the Kingdom thus far, because of the increase in the number of young voters. Today, the number of eligible voters exceeds four million, approximately a million of which are abroad, compared with just over two million registered voters in 2013. Undoubtedly, this offers a critical opportunity to realise positive change, achieve the envisioned reform and move forward.

Real reform starts with citizens themselves, the moment they take the decision to participate in the legislative elections and elect qualified candidates to represent them in Parliament. After all, we cannot criticise the level of political life and refrain from participation in the elections and then blame the House of Representatives for its performance. It is the responsibility of voters to elect the most qualified candidate to represent them, in a way that ensures that they are well represented and their interests and rights are protected, as this will impact their lives and future.

Change can only be achieved through the ballot box, and those seeking reform should work to realise it. Naturally, we will always face challenges, but we cannot move forward unless we have the will to overcome them.

Today, there is an opportunity for everyone to engage in public service and seek the confidence of the people. The participation of men and women from the entire political spectrum in the country in the upcoming elections will contribute to the success of our reform, and enhance peoples’ confidence in Parliament.

Ad Dustour: What else do you envision in terms of reforms?

King Abdullah: Elections will be followed by municipal and governorate councils’ elections, which will be held next year under the new municipalities and decentralisation laws.

The Decentralisation Law is a very important link in the chain of reforms Jordan is embracing, as it will ensure local administrations greater powers to identify development priorities in a way that reflects positively on citizens. The government is currently in the process of finalising all by-laws and instructions related to the municipalities and decentralisation laws and it will be making the necessary arrangements to put in place the infrastructure and the technical requirements to ensure the success of the decentralisation project and achieve its envisaged goals.

We are on the right track, and we have to carry on building on solid foundations and move forward steadily, without hesitation or fear.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, Jordan is moving ahead with its reform efforts despite the difficult regional situation. You have asserted that you would strike with an iron fist anyone who attempts to tamper with the country’s security or borders. How do we protect our country against these cowardly criminal acts?

King Abdullah: The entire world is now targeted by terrorist acts, which have claimed many innocent lives. We have seen acts of terrorism that contradict the principles of Islam and how criminal and treacherous gangs have violated everything sacred, even attacking the Prophet's Mosque in the holy month of Ramadan.

Such security threats are not unfamiliar and terrorist gangs have for long targeted Jordan, but our Armed Forces, security agencies and high public awareness stand firm. Terrorist attempts will never affect our commitment to fighting terrorism and Khawarej, outlaws of Islam.

God bless the souls of those who have martyred in the line of duty. Without the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and security agencies, Jordan would not have enjoyed stability in a volatile region. In this context, we must underline the importance of national unity and public vigilance as we stand up to face these perils.

All national institutions, especially media, religious and educational institutions, have a large responsibility to increase public awareness to reject extremism and hatred that are alien to Islam, a faith of moderation. Such institutions are a major line of defence as we step forward to protect our true religion and values. They must, therefore, play their role with efficiency and responsibility. Certainly though, global and regional anti-terrorism efforts must be intensified to address such a threat, in line with a holistic strategy that takes into consideration the military, security, ideological and economic aspects.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, we have lately witnessed violations of the law and rhetoric that does not represent our Jordanian values. How can we address these?

King Abdullah: Jordan is a unique model built on compassion, harmony, coexistence and mutual respect among the one united Jordanian family, both Muslims and Christians.

This country has been established on deeply rooted foundations of solidarity between its citizens. It has survived the toughest circumstances, only to emerge stronger through its unity. We will not allow or tolerate attempts by some to promote extremist ideas that are alien to our culture, religion and values. Such ideas have no place in our society. We will not tolerate anyone who attempts to sow division or offend our religion or any religion. They are the enemies of every Jordanian, enemies of our country and our fundamental principles.

Achieving justice for all and ensuring the rule of law are core responsibilities and duties. All state agencies are committed to upholding the law to protect the rights of citizens. We will not allow anyone to undermine this and any attempt to violate the law will be dealt with firmly.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, Jordan is shouldering a huge burden as a result of hosting Syrian refugees, despite its limited resources and capabilities and in light of a poor international response to the crisis. How long can Jordan continue to face this increasing burden?

King Abdullah: What Jordan has been providing refugees, whether our brotherly Syrians or others, is something that bigger and wealthier nations have failed to do. No one can question the noble humanitarian role of our country in this regard and the burdens undertaken by Jordanians, who have set a brilliant example to the entire world as they share their resources with their Syrian brethren.

Everybody knows that Jordan is shouldering a huge responsibility in the region on behalf of the entire world. However, we have reached our limits.

Despite all difficulties, Jordan is doing its utmost to help refugees, but that will under no circumstances be at the expense of the livelihood of Jordanians and their security.

Ad Dustour: In light of such commitment, do you think that the size of international support is adequate?

King Abdullah: We do appreciate the significant support by friendly countries, but the consequences of the Syrian refugee influx are mounting and challenges are increasing.

We need the international community to be, at the very least, a full partner in shouldering the responsibility because this is an international crisis and an international responsibility and the world has to do its part.

What we have received from the international community so far has not exceeded, regrettably, 35 per cent of the cost of hosting refugees. The remaining funding gap is covered by Jordan. Such spending is using up more than a quarter of our budget. This has increased our debt and reflected adversely on our ability to carry out planned economic and developmental projects, generate jobs and improve the quality of services offered to citizens.

At the donor conference to support Syria and the region in London, we put forward a proposal that constitutes a new approach based on investment and growth stimulation, instead of relying only on humanitarian aid. It is an approach that brings us together as partners –– states, regions, private sector, international financial institutions and donor partners –– to build a sustainable model to meet the burdens of hosting Syrian refugees.

Ad Dustour: What are the major outcomes of the London conference and how will they help Jordan in practical terms?

King Abdullah: One of the key outcomes that Jordan will benefit from is relaxation of our rules of origin with the EU for the next ten years, starting from last July. This will allow 18 development and industrial zones across Jordan to benefit from the opportunity to export their products to European markets under easier conditions and simpler terms.

Our priority is to create jobs in governorates, especially refugee-hosting communities. Accordingly, 75 per cent of jobs in these industrial plants are designated for Jordanians.

What is needed now is to take advantage of this deal effectively to attract investments and expand existing projects. The private sector, which suffers from losing several export markets due to the situation in the region, should take the initiative and seize this opportunity to market its products in one of the largest global markets.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, what about the decision to declare the northern and north-eastern borders a closed military zone?

King Abdullah: The decision, to declare the northern and north-eastern borders closed military zones, came following several warnings by Jordan that extremist elements exist among makeshift camps near the border. We will not allow, under any circumstances, Daesh, outlaws or smugglers to create bases there.

Those stranded near the border come from areas controlled by Daesh. We are willing to facilitate their transfer to any country that is willing to host them. We will not allow anyone to put pressure on us. Our national security tops our priorities and is above all other considerations. We are committed to working with the international community for a solution, but it will under no circumstance come at our expense.

Ad Dustour: How do you assess the economic situation amidst a difficult regional situation?

King Abdullah: Economic challenges are not new to Jordanians, but I firmly believe that Jordanians are, as always, able to transform challenges into opportunities. Economic challenges top my priorities and I am fully aware of the difficulties and concerns my people face as a result of the economic situation.

Regional and international circumstances have created a challenging economic situation and tremendous difficulties. However, such a reality should not be a source of frustration and underperformance. We have a firm belief that if we want the best, we have to count on ourselves first and foremost. If we want to achieve our goals, we need to work together sincerely and diligently to serve our country and citizens.

Ad Dustour: What practical steps should be taken to overcome such a situation?

King Abdullah: Steering the Jordanian economy requires exceptional efforts and agility at all levels if we want to restore growth rates and boost the economy. This requires the implementation of the Jordan 2025 development blueprint, and providing the necessary environment to optimise partnership and cooperation between government, private sectors and civil society. In addition to implementing what was identified in the Letter of Designation (to the current government). This is not an easy job in light of all the regional changes and challenges that we are witnessing and their impact on our economy. Therefore, it is imperative for all institutions and the private sector to join efforts to realise our goals.

It should be pointed out that the goal behind establishing the Economic Policies Council is to back the government and support it in adopting sound economic policies in partnership with the private sector, so that we can lower unemployment rates, increase growth and enhance investment climate.

We have ambitious energy, infrastructure and water mega projects and we realise that the government alone cannot implement them. Accordingly, setting up the Jordan Investment Fund allows the private sector to take part. It will also enhance joint Arab investments, especially with Saudi Arabia.

Ad Dustour: How will these measures reflect on citizens, especially the youth?

King Abdullah: The economic policy for the immediate phase focuses on attracting investments that will generate jobs, especially for young Jordanians, who are a very important segment of our society; allowing them to chart their way into the future they seek.

Here, I would like to point out that rising unemployment rates among the youth and low economic participation of women are major challenges we face.

My faith in Jordan’s future gets a boost every time I meet with creative, ambitious and hardworking young Jordanians.

I have directed the government to form the National Human Resources Development Committee, to come up with a national strategy to advance the educational sector and vocational and technical training. This is instrumental for improving the quality and outcomes of education, in a manner that equips our youth to compete in the labour market and overcome challenges. The government is required to work closely with the committee to implement its recommendations, which will be ready within weeks, and also to implement the National Employment Strategy.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, you have stressed during the past years that a political solution is the only way out of the crisis in Syria. Is such a solution still possible?

King Abdullah: The price of the violence and the destruction we see in Syria is paid by the Syrian people. The continuation of the crisis threatens the stability of the region and Syria's unity.

The only solution is an inclusive political one that involves all components of the Syrian people. It is one that all parties agree to and can end the suffering, preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and launch broad reforms that ensure pluralism, democracy, reconciliation and the return of refugees to their country.

We hope that cooperation between the US and Russia helps end all hostilities in Syria and allows the resumption of the Geneva talks, leading to a comprehensive political solution. In the absence of such a solution, sectarian conflict will fester in the region and extremist terrorist groups will continue to threaten international security and stability.

Ad Dustour: The priority of the Palestinian cause has gone down on the international agenda as a result of increased regional turmoil. Do you believe that the two-state solution, which you have always advocated, is still possible?

King Abdullah: Jordan is a steady supporter of the Palestinian people, as the Palestinian issue is our foremost cause and national interest.

The failure to reach a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian cause and allowing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to drift further away from the two-state solution only fuels violence and extremism in the region.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, the Israeli violations against Jerusalem and its holy sites are ongoing. Jordan, under your leadership, is carrying on with its efforts to defend the holy city. What measures can be taken to address these violations?

King Abdullah: We are dealing with repeated violations and transgressions by Israel and extremist groups and their blatant attempts to change the status quo in Jerusalem, including its landmarks, heritage and historical identity, as well as attempts to violate the rights of the Arab residents, make their lives difficult and force them to leave, in addition to tampering with Islamic and Christian holy sites.

We will persist in undertaking our religious and historical responsibilities towards Al Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al Sharif, which faces repeated violations by extremist groups. As the Custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, I will continue my efforts to protect these places and stand up against all violations of their sanctity or attempts for temporal and spatial division of Al Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al Sharif.

Our responsibility towards Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem is a top priority for our foreign policy. We utilise all our capabilities to protect Al Aqsa Mosque which includes the entire indivisible Al Haram Al Sharif in Jerusalem. We have successfully led efforts to adopt this definition at the UN and UNESCO. Moreover, we maintain all available political and legal options to stand against violations and protect holy sites.

Ad Dustour: Your Majesty, Iraq is continuing its efforts to liberate its lands from Daesh and there have been some positive results on the ground. How do you evaluate the situation?

King Abdullah: We support all efforts exerted by the Iraqi government and people to fight terrorism and uproot its criminal gangs. To ensure that current successes continue, all components of the Iraqi people should be included in the political process and state institutions. No one should be marginalised or excluded.

The latest developments indicate a weak popular base for Daesh, which has been holding innocent civilians hostage. We hope that political and military efforts progress in tandem.

Ad Dustour: Do you think that the situation on the ground and developments in the war on terror suggest that we are closer to a post-Daesh era?

King Abdullah: Since the first day Daesh and its likes appeared, we stressed that this is going to be a military and an ideological war that will be long and requires cooperation and coordination within a holistic approach to eliminate these gangs and prevent their expansion and future resurgence.

The war against these terrorists and Khawarej, outlaws of Islam, is foremost our war as Arabs and Muslims. They are our primary enemy because they seek to distort our true religion and instil hatred and sedition in our communities.

There is a progress in the war against Daesh. Military efforts are ongoing, but need to be coupled with political and developmental efforts in liberated areas that witnessed the most heinous atrocities by Daesh. There should be a comprehensive ideological, political and social strategy to protect our communities against radicalism. Perhaps, this is the biggest challenge of our time.

Ad Dustour: Thank you, Your Majesty.

King Abdullah: Thank you.