Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Ahmad Al Khatib
Agence France Presse (AFP)
12 September 2012

AFP: Your Majesty, various Western sources have said Jordan and Turkey might consider buffer zones in Syria. Is the Kingdom considering such a move?

King Abdullah: Jordan has not considered imposing a buffer zone, but obviously we reserve the sovereign right to consider all options to safeguard the interests and security of Jordan. My first and foremost duty is to protect Jordan and its citizens. We have seen the Syrian army shoot civilians fleeing across our border, Syria has shelled Jordanian territory. So we are keeping our options open, if, for example, there are more escalations. Jordan will always act under the framework of international and Arab consensus, and in accordance with international law.

That said, our priority continues to be to work for a solution based on a peaceful political transition within the international legal framework. Ultimately, this is the best safeguard, the best buffer.

AFP: Some Jordanian officials have been quoted as saying the Kingdom has arrested Syrian cells, particularly in the north. Is this true? If yes, when and what did they plan to do in the country?

King Abdullah: Since the beginning of the crisis, some 200,000 Syrians – men, women, and children – have fled to us, often at night, often in small family groups. It would have been impossible to have run security checks on everyone as they crossed into Jordan, and we received them on a humanitarian basis. But, yes, we have discovered that a few came here, not to seek safe haven, but to carry out other missions - intelligence gathering on refugees, or schemes to target Jordan’s stability and security. Let me simply say, the way Syria deals with its neighbours is one of the potential escalations that we are watching closely.

AFP: US and other media reported that Jordanian and US Special Forces are training for a military intervention in Syria to secure its chemical weapons. Do you have such plans? Do you think Syria is capable of unleashing these weapons?

King Abdullah: If Syria unleashes its chemical weapons on its own people or in any other direction, this would constitute a gross violation of international law, and I would imagine the international community would react strongly and promptly. All of us in the international community are watching through the microscope at how the Syrian government deals with chemical weapons.

As for Jordan's plans, well, a good army plans for all contingencies, and the Jordanian Armed Forces are outstanding professionals. This is obviously not the appropriate forum to discuss details. Quite simply, we owe it to our people to have contingency plans to protect them and guarantee public safety and security.

AFP: Western powers and some Arab countries have been urging President Bashar al-Assad to quit, saying this will help end the conflict. Are you of that opinion? Or do you think his departure, in face of a fractured opposition, could spell more trouble for Syria and beyond its borders?

King Abdullah: I’ve been saying all along that the issue is not the individual, but the system. If President Bashar were to leave tomorrow, but the system stayed, then what would the Syrian people have achieved?

I am extremely worried about the risk of a fragmentation of Syria. Over the past few months we have witnessed an increase in sectarian violence. This not only endangers the unity of Syria, but it could also be a prelude to a spill-over of the conflict, into neighbouring countries with similar sectarian composition. We have already seen signals that this risk is looming closer.

We need to find a formula for a political transition where all components of Syrian society, including the Alawites, feel that they have a stake in the country’s future. An inclusive transition process is the only way to stop the escalation in sectarian violence. It is in the best interest of the Syrian people, as it would preserve the territorial integrity and unity of Syria, and it is in the best interest of regional stability and the international community.

AFP: Riad Hijab is the highest-ranking Syrian official to have defected to Jordan. Who else has sought refuge here, and do you see Hijab and others play a role in a post-Assad Syria?

King Abdullah: Who will play a role in the future of Syria will be up to the Syrians. Our responsibility in the international community is to work towards a political solution that stops the bloodshed, restores security, and guarantees the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.

As for defections, I can tell you that hundreds of military and security officers have sought refuge in Jordan. We respond on a case-by-case basis, in line with humanitarian principles and international law. This has always been and will remain our rule.

But the great majority of people who fled across our border are families, and mostly vulnerable families.

AFP: Your Majesty, Jordan is sheltering around 200,000 Syrians. Do you expect to receive more refugees?

King Abdullah: I do, unfortunately, as sad and difficult as it is. At times, we have received several thousand refugees in a single night, and this figure could grow in the coming months as Syria slips into further sectarian violence. With the approach of winter and cold desert temperatures, the humanitarian prospect is dire.

You heard that six UN agencies joined Jordan last week in a joint appeal to the international community for immediate assistance. This is urgently needed, to give these suffering families just the basics of life. My country has already crossed its absorption capacity. At the beginning, most Syrians crossing into Jordan were coming to stay with relatives, as there are 550,000 Syrians married into Jordanian families. Now most of those who are coming need shelter. Last month we had to open the Zaatari camp, and a second camp will be opened soon. Meanwhile, more than30,000 Syrian citizens have received medical treatment in Jordan, be that in hospitals or health centres, more than 25,000 Syrian preschoolers have received vaccination in Jordan, and our schools have enrolled close to 17,000 Syrian students.

The cost of all this is obviously huge, and we could not meet it alone. Jordan has a record budget deficit, due mainly to the disruptions in the Egyptian gas supply. The demands on our services infrastructure and limited resources are also high.

International support is vital, and so far the response of the international community has been very positive. We can only hope it will continue in this way.

AFP: Your Majesty, how do you view the reform process so far?

King Abdullah: Things that were only on the horizon last year have moved much further on. One-third of our Constitution has been amended, with provisions to widen representation, to protect civil rights and freedoms, and to enhance the separation of powers. We have created an independent Constitutional Court. Our first Independent Elections Commission is at work, preparing for the upcoming parliamentary polls. New laws are being enacted; citizens everywhere are engaged in debating public issues; our political-party system is evolving and being strengthened.

The challenge now is to keep moving forward. As guarantor of the reform process, I have been urging a tight timeline toward elections, so we can make a historic transition to parliamentary government. With the beginning of the new year, we will have our new parliament.

AFP: You have promised early elections and voters registration is now under way. Do you think the unrest in Syria will affect the polls?

King Abdullah: Regional challenges are no excuse not to proceed with reform. We are confident enough with the reform process not to use regional challenges to step away from what Jordanians want to achieve – a strong drive for reform. We will continue with the reform process and our drive for elections by the end of this year.

AFP: Islamists and other opposition groups have announced plans to boycott general elections over the current electoral law. You have already asked for amendments to the law once, do you plan to ask for further amendments?

King Abdullah: As constitutional monarch my mandate is to be the umbrella for all political groupings and all segments of our society and as part of that responsibility, I am telling the Muslim Brotherhood that they are making a tremendous miscalculation.

This elections law is not perfect. We all understand that. But there is no better consensus on an alternative. What is critical is that we keep going forward, and – mark my words – we will have a new parliament by the new year.

But you've asked an important question, a national question for all Jordanians, and I want to expand my answer a little bit.

Jordan's people want to see action, they want to see governments that deliver results. Perhaps the best way to have issued a new elections law would have been to pass it as a temporary law. This, however, is constrained by the recent constitutional amendments that restrict issuance of temporary laws.

And that's what I think we must keep the focus on, Jordan's Constitution, and constitutional process. The law in place today is the product of the constitutional process. It factored in many competing interests, proposals and visions from the different political groupings. And the debate was intense. I personally heard close to a dozen versions of electoral systems from different political groups and parties, each proposing a different electoral system and elections law. One group proposed to focus on national lists. Another suggested proportional lists at the district level, others suggested adding a vote for the women’s quota, some suggested adding a vote for a representative at the governorate level. Certain groups suggested redistricting. Some requested adding multiple votes at the district level. And the list goes on.

And during all this time, all suggestions and drafts to date, from the National Dialogue Committee recommendations more than a year ago, to the draft submitted by the previous government, all have been met with varying degrees of rejection by the Muslim Brotherhood. And that's regrettable.

The elections law was passed based on consensus, not flawless, but the best achievable consensus, given the current Parliament at this time. Moreover, in the current Parliament, there was no consensus even on the recommendations by the National Dialogue Committee. Having said that, the current law completed all required constitutional steps. Polls show it is supported by a comfortable, almost two-thirds, majority of Jordanians. And we cannot in Jordan create a law tailored to just one political party or minority grouping that happens to be the most vocal.

But the promise of constitutional government is this: that the next Parliament, which will be elected through transparent and free polls, will have the opportunity to amend the law, and revisit the electoral system.

This puts ownership of the process where it belongs, in the Jordanian people themselves, who will decide on the next law through their elected representatives. And what's more, Jordanians will keep looking, to successive parliaments and governments, to increase the representativeness and inclusivity of our elections laws. And I will hold parliaments accountable for maintaining that trajectory, in a manner that empowers and enfranchises all citizens, politically and economically.

So, on the elections law – and beyond the elections law, to every issue that matters to any Jordanian – my message to all parties and political forces is this: If you want to change Jordan for the better, there is a way and there is an opportunity. The way is through the next Parliament, and the opportunity is the upcoming elections.

But for that to happen, citizens must participate, voters must register, parties and lists must organise. Every party platform should be for the next four years and needs to tell voters, not only what policies that party supports, but what kind of governance it wants, what the next elections law should include, what new constitutional amendments, if any, what additional political reforms. And the voters will decide at the ballot box.

So I'm telling the Muslim Brotherhood, you have a choice. To stay in the street or to help build the new democratic Jordan.

AFP: So you are not inclined to delay the polls, as some asked.

King Abdullah: No, I’m not inclined to. Let me be unequivocally clear. The countdown to the elections has already started. Registration is under way – we have already crossed the one-million person mark. Parliament will be dissolved. The elections date will be announced. And we will have a new Parliament by the new year.

I would also like to add a point here, I am well aware that certain parliamentarians and other figures are promoting the impression that there will be no early elections to discourage citizens from registering. Let me be clear again, we will hold early elections, and every Jordanian citizen should not be deprived of his or her right to register and vote because of such misinformation.

In terms of the electoral process, for the first time, elections will be overseen by an independent commission. Voter registration will be a critical step and milestone along our roadmap to reform. And it is the first time since 1989 that we are rebuilding the voters register, under the oversight of the Independent Elections Commission. New and unprecedented measures are in place to guarantee transparency and fairness throughout the electoral process. This will lead to a much more representative Parliament.

Let me say, this transition to parliamentary government is a historic moment for Jordan, and the upcoming elections are the fundamental requirement for this transition.

Because this election will determine not only the make-up of the new parliament, but also that of the new parliamentary government. We don't yet have strong political parties representing right, left and centre– there will likely be several political parties, some independents, and some blocs – so the next parliament will almost certainly have to form bloc-based coalitions to form the government. And that government, as long as it maintains a majority, should stay in office throughout the parliamentary cycle – four years, four watershed years in Jordanian political history. I think every voter will want to cast his or her ballot on what those years should bring.

The new government will also have to deal with the tremendous challenges facing Jordanian citizens, from unemployment to the energy crisis, tax policy, social security, landlords and tenants issues, education policy, improving basic services, shaping the next elections law, strengthening the national integrity system and the fight against corruption. So, voting in the upcoming elections basically means determining not only the next Parliament, but the next government, too. And, by doing so, influencing policy and decision-making on issues that matter most deeply to every Jordanian.

I therefore call on each voter to question candidates on their four-year political, economic and social programmes, which should go beyond the catchy slogans. We need deputies with clear platforms, addressing voter concerns – deputies who can, for example, effect national employment policies that support real opportunities for young Jordanians, rather than deputies who carry around CVs and promise government jobs in an already-bloated public sector.

The Jordanian Spring will culminate into the elections which will usher in the Jordanian Summer – our season of hard work and delivery. The Jordanian Summer will start with the upcoming new Parliament and will proceed from under its dome as the harvest season to build on the historic reforms achieved so far.

AFP: Remaining on domestic issues, you last week froze a very unpopular government decision to hike fuel prices. Your move was obviously hailed by the people, but some are asking where the government will now get the money and how Jordan will fulfil its promises to its donors.

King Abdullah: I stepped in and requested the government to freeze the fuel price hikes on two products, because I understand the hardships facing Jordanian families at this time of economic crisis. The bills keep coming at the end of each month, the bills keep getting bigger, and jobs and salaries are not growing as much.

At the same time, I also fully understand that the government is facing major dilemmas, it is between a rock and a hard place. How to end the burdens that subsidies place on the budget and the economy - and they do place a burden - without adding to the economic hardships that many people are facing. We need to find solutions immediately.

Let me emphasise here that our friends in the international community will only help us if we help ourselves as a nation first. Our donors and lenders are requesting that we lift subsidies. In fact, subsidies are part of the reason why promised aid is not coming to Jordan. If we can find a way of lifting subsidies, while protecting the lower-income segments and not compromising on our strategic goal of supporting the middle class, then aid to Jordan will flow more easily, and this will benefit all Jordanians. This is why I have called for redirecting blanket subsidies, to provide subsidies to the segments that deserve it.

Despite the achievements of economic reform over the past decade – let us not forget that our economy tripled since 2000 - we are still reliant on aid. The global financial and economic crises dealt a heavy blow to economies much stronger than ours. But the coup de grace was the energy crisis at a time of unprecedentedly increasing energy and food prices. Nothing could be worse for a country that imports 96% of its energy and 87% of its food. Then we lost our gas supply from Egypt - the gas pipeline in the Sinai was blown up over 14 times since February 2011 - and Egypt this year has been pumping only about 16% of contracted quantities, and only around 30% last year. This unforeseen development doubled our energy bill and made our budget deficit sky-rocket.

I want to say this as plainly as possible, the number one reason for the unprecedented budget deficit and extraordinary increase in national debt was the continuous interruptions in the gas supply from Egypt, at a time of historic highs in energy and food prices globally.

Energy has historically been a choke point for Jordan. We need to break free and increase our self-reliance. The only way out of our vulnerability is to diversify our energy sources. We are exploring for gas in the East. Jordan is also the perfect country for solar, and we started tapping into it; wind is another potential source. Another part of the solution will be our peaceful nuclear energy programme. Redirecting fuel subsidies, to those who most need them, remains critical.

As I said before, the coming elections, the new parliament and new parliamentary government, will have to deal with this energy challenge and find the necessary solutions, as it impacts the lives of all Jordanians. This is why citizens need to vote, and vote for the candidate and national list with the right programme and solutions.

AFP: But there is opposition, there have been demonstrations against the nuclear energy programme.

King Abdullah: Right. And I understand those who are anti-nuclear because of safety concerns or philosophical reasons. Let me say at the outset that for a small country like ours, safety at every level must be and will be the number one priority.

But we must also look closely at how we can safely and effectively use nuclear to meet our people's urgent needs. Jordan has 3% of the world’s uranium resources. So we have a natural resource that makes nuclear a viable option for us, and would grant us some degree of self-reliance.

We have to also consider that Jordan is the world’s fourth water-scarcest country and desalination will very soon be a priority. Nuclear energy will be the cheapest reliable way to desalinate water.

Strong opposition to Jordan's nuclear energy programme is coming from Israel. When we started going down the road of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, we approached some highly responsible countries to work with us. And pretty soon we realised that Israel was putting pressure on those countries to disrupt any cooperation with us. A Jordanian delegation would approach a potential partner, and one week later an Israeli delegation would be there, asking our interlocutors not to support Jordan’s nuclear energy bid.

Against this backdrop, I feel that those who oppose our peaceful nuclear programme for all the wrong reasons are furthering Israeli interests more efficiently than Israel could ever do.

As for constructive domestic opposition, I understand the activists who make the argument for public safety. It is their right. But Jordan will go only for the most secure, latest-generation reactor. These are far safer than earlier models, and have multiple features that help them withstand extreme conditions. Japan’s Fukushima disaster involved an old-generation plant. And of course any plant would be located where it would have the least earthquake risk and the highest security. By the way, if we had a tsunami up in the north-east, then we would have much bigger problems to worry about than the nuclear plant!

I've also heard opponents say that nuclear energy is on the way out, that other countries are shutting their plants. But the fact is that worldwide, more plants are being set up. Countries know their people need energy.

Cost is an important question. There's no argument, nuclear energy is one of the cheapest energy sources around. As for plant construction costs, we have to look at this seriously. But let me give you a simple comparison. The nuclear power plant that the government is looking at would cost about JOD3.5 billion, for a plant that would constitute one third of the total power capacity generated in Jordan today. The attacks on the Egyptian gas pipeline over the past two years have cost us already JOD2.8 billion. That could have paid for almost one reactor.

AFP: One last question, Your Majesty. Thirteen years ago, you ascended to the throne. What was the biggest challenge you had to face? What have you learned most over the past 13 years?

King Abdullah: In the military, we were used to delivering on our orders, according to clear timelines. So it's been a challenge for me to stay patient in diplomatic or political situations, when goals aren't reached as fast as I want them to be. I was honoured to take my constitutional oath and serve my country, and getting results for our people is still my priority.

I'd have to say the most important lesson I've learned has been from the resilience of Jordanians, their character and ability to succeed, against the odds and despite limited resources. I have seen Jordanians achieve impressive results. We are regional leaders in ICT, pharmaceuticals, education and health. We now create and manage 75% of all Arabic-language internet content from the region - and that has happened even though we account for just 2% of the region’s population!

Even in these grim times of global crisis, our global rankings in health and education are jumping up. Internationally and regionally, we are complimented for our visionary entrepreneurs and young creative talents, our doctors and engineers, our soldiers. When I visit our soldiers at the northern border, and see the impressive job they are doing at saving lives, or when I hear of the tremendous achievements of our soldiers and police forces in Afghanistan and other hot spots around the world, I feel immense pride.

I was so proud when I shook the hand of a Jordanian entrepreneur who became the second largest chalk exporter in the world, starting from a JOD30,000 loan. And I've met so many other champions. I have total confidence in the Jordanian character and Jordanian ability.

Unfortunately, all the good stories do not find space in our media. Some of our media shy away from balanced reporting while other took only half of the challenge – they took the freedom, but not the responsibility. This is disheartening. Some went even further, using blackmail and intimidation for personal gain and personal agendas.

Although you will not hear of our success stories from our media, or from some of our political circles and intelligentsia, who always see the glass half empty, when I go out to the governorates, or with the army, when I sit with young people anywhere in the country, I get an injection of energy, pride and hope. Every day I learn from that strength.