Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Sara Daniel
Le Nouvel Observateur
12 January 2013

Nouvel Obs: Your Majesty, where are we with the peace process and what is your role in the resumption of negotiations?

King Abdullah: I am cautiously optimistic. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the core cause of instability in the Middle East and beyond, and solving it is Jordan’s first foreign policy priority. I clearly see a window of opportunity that we cannot afford to waste again, as of next month, after the inauguration of President Obama and the Israeli elections. I see a confluence of several factors that altogether can contribute towards a strong push to solve this 65-year-long conflict before it is too late for the two-state solution. One factor is a second-term US president who deeply understands the complexities of this conflict, along with the emergence of a strong political will globally on the urgent need to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. Another factor is the recent UNGA vote recognising Palestine as a non-member observer state, and the fact that the Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table. There are also the pressures emanating from the Arab Spring, which highlighted the need for freedom, dignity, ending the Israeli occupation and establishing the Palestinian state. All of this creates a window of opportunity for a push to revive the peace process. We do not have four more years to wait for the next US president to work on Middle East peace, particularly that Israeli settlements are eating up all Palestinian lands, which threatens the premise of the two-state solution and the geographic contiguity of the Palestinian state.

We are working closely with several parties in Europe, including France, to put some effective and workable ideas on the table that would enable the US to engage and play a leading role in the peace process soon after the start during the second term of President Obama. Historically, a second-term president is more prone to invest political capital in such a difficult and complex issue. We need all like-minded countries such as France which has a crucial role to play, Germany and the UK on the European side, and Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, along with Jordan. You can say that we are doing our homework to pave the way for this window of opportunity that is closing down on the two-state solution rather quickly.

Jordan has never relinquished its responsibility and let the United States and EU do the heavy lifting on their own, and never will, simply because Palestinian-Israeli peace is a strategic interest for Jordan. Early last year, the Amman Talks managed to break a 19-month deadlock and create a positive atmosphere for Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to resume direct contacts. It reached the stage of an exchange of letters between the two leaders, but unfortunately after that there was no further progress.

Nouvel Obs: What did you think about the UN vote recognising Palestine?

King Abdullah: The upgrade of Palestine to UN non-member observer state was indeed a historic strategic achievement. We must now capitalise on it to ensure that the peace process gains the momentum it deserves and that negotiations are renewed to deal with all final status issues on the basis of the two-state solution.

You see, as the international community we have a moral obligation to show that negotiations and peaceful means pay off and achieve results, not rockets and air strikes. The international reaction to the recent Gaza conflict was the correct course of action, but it almost sends the wrong message if we do not follow it up with action on resuming direct negotiations. The UN vote, on the other hand, showed a strong international stand in favour of the Palestinian Authority’s legitimate, legal and peaceful approach to solving the conflict. This has demonstrated strong support for peace and negotiations, in addition to a strong stance against settlements, which we agree are one of the main obstacles to peace, especially in E1 areas which drew clear international condemnation especially from France.

Nouvel Obs: You have known Benjamin Netanyahu for a long time. How would you describe him?

King Abdullah: Sometimes, when I listen to him talk about the future of the region, I feel that he understands what needs to be done to get things moving forward in terms of the two-state solution. But then what he says is not matched by concrete steps by the Israeli government on the ground, and this is what people in the region and beyond clearly see and feel. The upcoming Israeli elections present a critical opportunity to solve this decades-old conflict once and for all.

Nouvel Obs: Do you think that the Israelis are determined to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?

King Abdullah: Some Israeli politicians seem very determined. We may see renewed threats to bomb Iran after the elections. As an ex-military man, I have serious doubts on the feasibility of various scenarios for an Israeli military campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites. As a head of state in the Middle East, I can tell you that the region doesn’t need another conflict, and I hope the Israeli people realise this. The Jordanian position has always been absolutely clear on this issue: We have to work tirelessly for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only by doing so will we stop extremism, violence and the arms race across our region.

Nouvel Obs: How long do you think the Syrian regime can last?

King Abdullah: From a military point of view, I would not write off the Syrian regime yet. But one can look at the situation from an economic point of view, in terms of central bank reserves, access to and distribution of food and fuel supplies. When a regime runs out of money, food or fuel, that’s the end, even if it has strong military capabilities.

What is more important is to have consensus on a plan for the transition of power and the day after, a plan that ensures an inclusive transition and preserves the territorial integrity of the country and the unity of its people. Each group in Syrian society, including the Alawites, must feel that they have a stake in the future of the country. The fragmentation or implosion of Syria would have disastrous consequences for the whole region, and could ignite conflicts for generations to come.

Nouvel Obs: Can you explain what is going through the mind of Bashar Assad? How would you describe him?

King Abdullah: I have asked myself this question. He probably fell hostage to a system that doesn’t allow for change.

Early on in the crisis, I sent the chief of the Royal Court to offer him my advice and concerns on how the Syrian regime was handling the situation. I thought, even though in Jordan our democratisation is certainly not perfect and not as we wish it to be, but Jordan could share some experiences, in terms of national dialogue and outreach to different sectors of society. He was not interested.

Nouvel Obs: With more than 45,000 dead, the Syrian revolution is the deadliest in the Arab world. How do you explain it? Does the international community share part of the responsibility?

King Abdullah: To start with, Syria is the most geopolitically and demographically complicated country in the region. This is partly why the international community has been so divided on Syria. And the division has not only been between the West, on one hand, and Russia and China on the other hand. Within the region we have seen different approaches, too. And because the crisis has been going on for so long, different approaches have solidified into blocs and attempts to expand and exercise one’s influence by supporting certain opposition groups.

Nouvel Obs: What do you think of the French position on Syria?

King Abdullah: I have coordinated closely with the French president, especially on Syria, but also on the peace process, and France’s position on settlements, as I said, is very important. By becoming the first Western country to recognise the [Syrian] National Coalition, France has shown leadership. We all have the responsibility to start thinking of the transition in Syria, and, I can’t stress this enough, to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of the Syrian people.

Nouvel Obs: Is it wise to arm the opposition?

King Abdullah: Can anyone guarantee that weapons destined to one group will not end up in the wrong hands? If the answer is no, well... you’ve got your answer. And with Al Qaeda’s presence confirmed in certain areas of Syria, and all the jihadist groups that we are seeing active there, I cannot warn enough against this risk.

Nouvel Obs: Are you concerned about Syria’s chemical weapons and the use that the regime could make of them?

King Abdullah: Jordan was the first country to warn against the threat of chemical weapons. The major concern is what happens if these chemical weapons stockpiles fall into the wrong hands. We have a responsibility to be ready for such contingencies, not only us as Jordan, because we have a long border with Syria, and we owe it to the Jordanian people to be ready and guarantee their safety, but also the international community. And I believe that the use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria would be a game-changer and prompt an immediate international response.

Nouvel Obs: Are you concerned about the clashes at the Jordanian-Syrian border?

King Abdullah: Border security has been one of our priorities since the beginning of the crisis. It is a lesson learned since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Such conflicts breed extremism and terrorism. In November, we uncovered a major plot by Salafi-jihadists close to Al Qaeda to hit targets in Amman.

Our soldiers on the northern border have been under enormous pressure, as more than 285,000 Syrians have crossed over into Jordan fleeing the violence. On some nights, they cross in the hundreds, on other in thousands — entire families, men who have been tortured, old people who lost everything, women who carry their babies for miles while dodging bullets to come to safety, traumatised children, and the wounded. As a Jordanian soldier at the border, as a human being, what you do is reach for your first-aid pack, share your water and food. You can’t tell these people to wait until all proper checks are run. So, in some cases a few have taken advantage and we have discovered some cells that were planning to attack either Syrians in Jordan or Jordanian and Western targets.

As for clashes at the border, yes, there have been fire exchanges, mostly starting with the Syrian army firing on Syrians trying to cross over into Jordan and our soldiers responding. One of our soldiers was wounded in one such exchange last month. This is why our concern remains the urgent need for consensus on the right transition of power in Syria, to minimise chances of a vacuum that could be filled by extremist elements who will take advantage of the potential of a failed state and Syria’s geo-politics to fuel instability and conflict in Syria and threaten the region.

Nouvel Obs: How do you see the revolutions that have invested the Arab countries one after the other? Has the Arab Spring become an Islamist winter?

King Abdullah: Right now, when I look at the region in general, I see a huge risk that secular authoritarianism might be replaced with religious authoritarianism. When women’s rights regress, when minorities, Christians and others, fear for their future, when pluralism is undermined, that’s not democracy. We have a lot of hard work to ensure that we all look back, once the dust settles, in five or 10 years, and say that the Arab Spring really brought a better life — more justice, dignity and opportunity — to the people of the Arab world. I always look at the glass half full, and I believe we will succeed. The international community must hold our region accountable and abandon its wait-and-see approach. The world must pro-actively engage to help build the pluralistic democracies that the Arab Spring intended for. Advanced democracies have a moral obligation to support and nurture the proper development of our home-grown democratisation efforts.

Nouvel Obs: Are you concerned by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in some of these countries?

King Abdullah: I think the Brotherhood won the elections in these countries because they were better organised, had a tested, long-established socio-economic networks in many communities. But what concerns me is not the Brotherhood’s election victories, as this is a right for any party, because at the end of the day voters will judge them on their performance, their ability to create jobs and economic growth, introduce and maintain democratic reforms. What concerns me is the risk that pluralism and alternation of power may be undermined, that one group wins the elections and uses its position to change the rules of the game to its favour and remain in power even when it loses public support and legitimacy.

Nouvel Obs: Would you say there is a Moroccan and Jordanian exception? If so, why is that?

King Abdullah: I can’t speak for Morocco, as each country is different. But Jordan and Morocco do share important features. The two are constitutional monarchies that enjoy the trust of their people, have historically served as a voice of moderation, advocates of reform and bedrock for national consensus, and are now guiding the transformation process in their societies and political systems. In Jordan, pluralism, diversity — be it religious, ethnical, or else — and peaceful coexistence are embedded in our national identity, and the monarchy serves as an umbrella for an all-encompassing national identity.

What we are trying to achieve in Jordan in terms of our evolutionary reform programme and home-grown democratisation efforts is to safeguard pluralism and enhance the appropriate checks and balances for a properly functioning democracy, develop a vibrant civic culture, provide all political forces with a level-playing field to fairly compete at the ballot boxes, protect minorities’ rights and protect citizens’ rights as per our Constitution.

Nouvel Obs: There have been a lot of demonstrations in your country. Is the “Arab Spring” coming to Jordan?

King Abdullah: Jordan has embraced the Arab Spring since its start. You have not seen in Jordan the dramatic events that other countries have witnessed, but there has been an unprecedented political reform process, with wide-ranging amendments to one-third of the Constitution, new democratic institutions such as the Independent Elections Commission and Constitutional Court, stronger checks-and-balances mechanisms, enhanced separation of powers so that no one branch of government would trespass over the jurisdiction of the other and new limitations to the king’s constitutional powers. Allow me to open a parenthesis here, that the powers of Jordanian kings have always been clearly defined and limited by the Constitution. On January 23, Jordanians will go to the polls to determine for the first time not only the shape of the next parliament, but the next government, too, as we start piloting a parliamentary government system which will require several parliamentary cycles to properly evolve in conjunction with the evolution of political parties in Jordan.

Since the beginning, we lived the Arab Spring as an opportunity — an opportunity to push ahead with political reform that had been relegated to the back-burner because of internal resistance by some vested interests.

And because we embraced the Arab Spring as an opportunity, Jordan’s approach towards demonstrations has been different from other countries. My first instruction to the police since the first demonstration was to disarm. The first legislative step by the Jordanian government was to lift authorisation requirements for public gatherings, so anyone could protest freely. This is healthy, this is how it should be, and it has become a way of life in Jordan.

The most recent wave of protests, in November, was a reaction to the government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies. I fully understand when hard-working and honest people take to the street because they can no longer make it to the end of the month. The decision to lift fuel subsidies was painful, but at the same time necessary. The government had to deal with unprecedented fiscal pressure due to the global financial crisis, on the one hand, and the disruption in the Egyptian gas supply, which doubled our energy bill. So, a comprehensive package of austerity measures had to be put in place. Jordanians took to the streets, in the same way as citizens across Europe have also done. But a compensation mechanism was also rolled out at the same time, providing direct cash assistance to more than 70 per cent of Jordanians, and that is working very well.

Nouvel Obs: How do you see the political evolution of Jordan in the next coming years concerning the King’s powers?

King Abdullah: When the constitutional amendments were introduced in September 2011, I immediately said that was just the beginning, not the end. In Jordan, we are a constitutional monarchy and the king has historically limited powers as clearly stipulated clearly in the constitution. Moreover, the recent constitutional amendments which included one-third of our constitution, limitations to the king’s powers were added. The political system in Jordan has always been a constitutional monarchy that evolves and changes together with the political system and as per the wishes of the majority of citizens, as citizens participate more directly to the decisions that affect their lives and new democratic institutions assume new responsibilities and functions. The monarchy my son will inherit will not be the same monarchy I inherited.

One of the traditional prerogatives of Jordanian kings was the designation of prime ministers — designation only, since no Jordanian prime minister could ever stay in office without obtaining and maintaining the vote of confidence of the elected parliament — and that is about to change now, starting from these elections, on January 23, when the designation of the new prime minister will be based on consultation with the majority coalition of parliamentary blocs emerging from the new parliament or the overall parliamentary blocs if no clear majority emerges. The prime minister-designate will then consult with the parliamentary blocs to form the new parliamentary government, which will still have to obtain and maintain parliament’s vote of confidence. As political parties evolve over parliamentary cycles, the parliamentary blocs will be based on political parties.

We will also need to work hard in Jordan to institutionalise the role of opposition in parliament. We want the opposition to compete seriously for government and to play an active role in monitoring governments. Opposition forces need to actually serve as a “shadow government” as in parliamentary democracies, and compete with incumbent governments in offering visions, programmes and solutions, and monitor their performance.

The real challenge facing the opposition today is voters’ reluctance to join political parties. According to opinion polls, more than 90 per cent of Jordanians are averse to joining political parties, a matter that requires serious efforts on the part of the next parliament and government as well as the opposition, to develop platforms that encourage citizens to become members in political parties and that respond to the interests of voters and encourage them to make voting decisions based on party platforms.

Nouvel Obs: On a more personal level, you explained in your memoirs how you were not expecting to become king.

King Abdullah: Whenever I look back I feel that my father had been preparing me for this responsibility throughout. It was the last decision of a man larger than life, who continues to inspire all of us Jordanians, and many other men and women to spread goodwill and peace across the world. I feel humbled by this tremendous honour — until today, after almost 14 years, every day, and I will always feel this way. At times I have felt the heavy burden. I cannot think of a greater and holier blessing than serving my country and my dear Jordanian people, who we are proud of.