Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Jamal Halaby
The Associated Press
20 March 2013

AP: On the eve of President Obama’s visit to the region, the White House says the President is not bringing any new peace initiative to the region. What are the chances for the resumption of peace talks?

King Abdullah: I see a window of opportunity to restart negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution, which is the only formula. Several factors are concurring to this window of opportunity. First, we have a second-term US President. Second, the historic UN vote upgrading the status of Palestine reflected a fresh international will. The Arab Spring also added urgency to resuming the peace process: The Arab Spring is first and foremost a cry for dignity, justice and freedom, which only a just and real peace can bring. And the fact that the Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table, after 11 years, is another contributing factor. I call upon the new government in Israel to seize on this fast closing window and to act quickly and decisively for the sake of a just and a lasting peace.

AP: What’s Jordan’s role in re-starting the peace process?

King Abdullah: Achieving the two-state solution is part of our national strategic interest and key to stability in our region. This is why we have always worked and will continue to work as hard as we can toward this goal. We have been doing our homework, together with like-minded countries in our region, our European friends and the Quartet. US leadership is vital to resuming meaningful negotiations. Our job is to ensure that the US does not have to do the heavy lifting by itself, that we collectively do something differently and urgently that re-launches final status negotiations so that we do not miss an increasingly narrowing opportunity to silence the rallying call for violence and extremism in this region and beyond.

AP: Your Majesty, you have talked about your son inheriting a different monarchy from yours. A few years down the road, would the monarchy shed some prerogatives, take a step back?

King Abdullah: The Monarchy will take a step back, in line with our reform road map for a party-based parliamentary government system. You could also look at it the other way around, in terms of newly empowered democratic institutions stepping forward – such as Parliament playing an active role in selecting the PM and forming the cabinet, as is happening now, at this historic turning point in our political history. It’s the bond with the people that will never change, and the Monarchy’s paramount objective – to safeguard Jordan’s prosperity, stability, security, and unity, and work for the wellbeing of Jordanians, so they can meet their aspirations. The evolution of the Monarchy is a topic I have been extremely keen to discuss - I addressed it directly in the latest in a series of published discussion papers as a way to foster debate. Looking forward, I see the Monarchy maintaining its role as the symbol of national unity and the voice of all Jordanians in defense of the core values of our national identity. The Monarchy will continue to serve as guarantor of the Constitution, as a safety valve of last resort in case of impasses. It will continue to ensure that the army, security forces, judiciary and public religious authorities remain neutral, independent, professional, and apolitical. The Monarchy will also continue to play a role in vital strategic issues of foreign policy and national security. Clearly, the success of this evolution demands that all stakeholders in the reform process participate in it and rise to the challenge and achieve the necessary levels of national political maturity. We are writing a whole new chapter in our history, and I am not writing it alone – the people and their representatives, political forces, civil society are writing it with me.

AP: The January elections confirmed a fragmented political landscape. How would you recommend shifting from a voting behaviour based on traditional family ties to one based on interests and ideology?

King Abdullah: Over 90% of eligible voters are averse to political parties. The majority of political parties are fragmented and not program-based. People will not start voting for political parties overnight, we all know that. We cannot continue with political parties that have outdated programs, if any, and no appeal, as I indicated in a recent interview. What is needed are national political parties with real programs that improve the life of people and reflect their aspirations. The current elections law introduced a hybrid system with one vote at local districts level and one for national lists to incentivize voting for political parties and increase representation all across the country. We have to learn from this and build on it for the next election cycles. Jordan just concluded landmark, transparent elections. 70% of eligible voters registered. Election turnout was 56.7%. 78% of political parties participated. The people have spoken. Today, we have a much more representative parliament that includes a record number of first-time MPs, more political shades and more women. Our reform roadmap has a clear trajectory, with milestones and prerequisites. Part of this trajectory involves keeping on developing our electoral system, through our constitutional institutions, so that it becomes more representative, maintains pluralism, provides a level playing field, and is conducive to the formation of party-based parliamentary governments. I have asked Parliament to give priority to the next elections law in line with this trajectory. More legislative reform is necessary. But democracy is a process and a way of life, not just laws. In addition to government, parliament, political parties and other institutions, every citizen has a role to play, a responsibility to advance our democratic culture, through constant engagement. I am proud of Jordan's pluralistic, consensual and peaceful model of democratic evolution. It is a model that will guarantee real democracy, because it is based on pluralism, openness, tolerance and moderation.

AP: As Your Majesty repeatedly said, the economy remains Jordan’s biggest challenge. How can Jordan overcome its economic challenges?

King Abdullah: We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. This is also why I pushed so hard for elections and a more representative parliament and government, so that the choices we do make are collective, national ones.

The global crisis had already hit our economy, then came the Arab Spring - tourism and investments slowed, Syrian refugees further strained our resources and infrastructure, trade through Syria all but halted. The coup-de-grace was the interruption in the supply of Egyptian gas, accounting for almost 80% of our electricity generation needs, at a time of globally record-high oil prices. This alone has been costing the government more than US$2b a year. Add to this the costs of hosting about half a million Syrian refugees, or 9% of our population. It’s as if over 30 million refugees flooded into the US, the majority having crossed in less than 12 months. Direct costs of hosting Syrian refugees are US$550 million annually at current refugee levels, which are expected to almost double over the next 6-8 months. Such severe external pressures on Jordan’s economy brought us by early 2012 to a fiscal crisis. Faced with these critical conditions, the government adopted last year a three-year national economic and fiscal reform plan supported by the IMF to restore fiscal sustainability. The upcoming parliamentary government has to come up with the wider, comprehensive four-year socio-economic program that will require Parliament’s approval.

In parallel, Jordan has been confidently building on its stability, positioning as a safe haven, and its competitive advantages of skilled human resources, free trade access to one billion consumers, enabling business environment and infrastructure to accelerate our economic growth engines and as a regional business gateway. The recent Turkish-Jordanian Business Forum, the MENA-ICT Forum and the Jordan-US Business Forums were clear votes of confidence in Jordan’s competitive positioning and potential.

AP: You mentioned that Egyptian gas supply to Jordan has been interrupted several times in the past two years. Do you believe that Egypt’s Islamist government is trying to pressure you into concessions to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood?

King Abdullah: I believe that the Egyptian government understands very well the importance of our close friendship, of maintaining our close coordination. Jordan looks at Egypt the country, not any political party. It is an important pillar in the Arab world. They are going through a difficult period right now. Democracy is not easy, it is a journey and they can count on Jordan for any support they need. As for the Brotherhood in Jordan, it is an integral part of Jordan’s fabric, and it will always be dealt with as such. The issue is not about me granting concessions to one group or another, the central issue in Jordan’s reform process is national dialogue, compromise and majority consensus. The Action Front declined to participate in the national dialogue and boycotted the elections, while the greatest majority participated in the dialogue and the elections. So, it is now clear where the Jordanian majority stands. I hope that one day soon the Action Front in Jordan will engage in the process and join our own journey toward a united and functioning democracy.

AP: What worries you most from the conflict in Syria? Chemical weapons, the steady flow or sudden surge in refugees, or that a Jihadist state would emerge out of the conflict?

King Abdullah: All these are extremely dangerous threats. I have been warning against them all, especially the chemical weapons threat, since the beginning of the crisis. As for the humanitarian emergency, assistance is direly needed not only to the host countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey but also inside Syria, so that hearts and minds can be won before extremists fill the vacuum left by a failed Syrian state and mass exoduses are prevented. We are working with all parties so that humanitarian assistance can be stockpiled in Jordan, not just for the refugees here, but also to assist families inside Syria.

The radicalisation of Syria, together with the deadlock in the peace process, would ignite the entire region. Another extremely dangerous scenario is the fragmentation of Syria, which would trigger sectarian conflicts across the region for generations to come. And also the huge risk that Syria could become a regional base for extremist and terrorist groups, which we are already seeing setting strong footholds in some areas. Faced with all these threats, we are working on contingencies to protect our population and borders, in self-defense. We are also appealing to the international community to catch up and support Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to cover the increasing costs of hosting Syrian refugees. In parallel, we continue to exert our utmost diplomatic efforts to assist in bridging gaps in the international community so that an agreement can be reached on an inclusive political transition that preserves the territorial integrity and unity of Syria.

AP: Has Jordan acquired any Patriot batteries to shield itself against possible attacks from Syrian territory?

King Abdullah: No, we haven’t. But we’re working on all contingencies to protect our people and borders.

AP: Would you consider an intervention inside Syria, to set up a safe zone, for example?

King Abdullah: Jordan works within Arab consensus and international consensus and legalities. I am totally against sending Jordanian troops inside Syria and this has always been Jordanian policy. I am also against any foreign military intervention in Syria.

AP: Do you think Assad may ultimately be able to survive the civil war and pull the country back to its feet, or is it only a matter of time before he’s gone?

King Abdullah: I believe we are past that point, too much destruction, too much blood. But ultimately this is something for the Syrian people to determine. The key question is whether Syria will plunge into chaos or there will be a transition, and what kind of transition. For the sake of Syria, the region and the international community, we should all work towards an immediate inclusive transition, where each group in Syrian society feels that it has a stake in the country’s future, including the Alawites.